The Poison Pie Publishing House presents:
The Ornithological Collection of Uwetsiageyv
(link to main page of novel)
Chapter 10. Toxostoma rufum
June 1, 2016
Whatever fault Uwetsiageyv found with the dress, its performance in flight was exemplary. It seemed naturally to reduce friction and she felt coasting on the air currents to come even more effortlessly than it had before. The tautness of the fabric precluded any needless flapping in the wind; it seemed to Uwetsiageyv that the dress would last forever. The crow and owl too noted the suitability and resiliency of the dress in flight, manifested as it was in the gay, fluid movement of the bird girl.
Of course, the dress was sleeveless and offered less warmth than had the sweater, but Uwetsiageyv gradually became accustomed to the movement of the wind over her arms.
As was their custom, each said little during the flight, but all three entertained thoughts of the conversation that would take place regarding the dwarf when they landed at the next island. Uwetsiageyv was too excited by the novelty of the dress to daydream as she had during their last flight; no unwelcome incursions disturbed them.
Eventually, a destination appeared as a dot in the sea of blue beneath them. The island was long and narrow, curved like a sickle, perhaps a mile at its widest point. At both ends, it extended beneath the water as a pale reef. Unlike most of the other islands they had visited thus far, there was no mountainous ridge in the center of this island. Even at its greatest altitude, it rose only a few dozen feet above sea level.
The trio descended and alit upon the beach. The forest that filled the interior of the island contained as much scrub brush as it did trees. Around the trunks of each, scraggly bushes sprouted, extending limbs in drooping arches. From within this brush a richly variegated and mellifluous song emerged. A pair of birds emerged, followed shortly by three fledglings. Bright yellow eyes peered out at them from a hood of warm caramel brown. The bellies of these birds were streaked with darker brown on a whitish field. Their beaks hooked downward, casting them in a pensive light, though their quick, darting movements belied any overly serious attitude. The family sang an extended string of musical phrases, most repeated twice, before the tune changed. This song was interspersed with harsh tsuck notes.
“Brown thrashers!” Uwetsiageyv called out in delight.
With a sideways glance the crow waited for the girl to pronounce her judgment.
“A vastly underappreciated bird,” she said.
The owl hopped forward, startling the family of brown thrashers, who dashed back into the shrubbery, disappearing from sight in the camouflage. “With all this undergrowth,” said the owl, “it will be difficult to see anything.”
“That’s the domain of the thrashers. I am sure,” volunteered Uwetsiageyv, “that they will be most willing to help us.”
June 2, 2016
An Ancient Enmity
“Are you familiar,” said the crow, as he wandered through the underbrush with Uwetsiageyv, “with the ancestral hatred that exists between dwarves and giants?”
Uwetsiageyv took a moment to digest the words, which had emerged from the crow apropos of nothing. She certainly had not been expecting them. It seemed the brown thrashers did not like the direction the conversation was to take for those few who had been in the vicinity vanished into the brush.
“No,” the girl admitted. “I didn’t know. Why don’t they like each other?”
Again, the crow managed a shrug. “Who can say? Like any ancient enmity the origin has long since been forgotten. All that remains is habit and tradition.”
“That’s terrible,” said Uwetsiageyv.
The crow continued his meandering path through the woods, navigating away from those parts where the undergrowth grew thickest. After a while the crow added, almost nonchalantly, “He seeks our destruction.”
“The dwarf?” Uwetsiageyv exclaimed, though there could be no other meaning. “That seems very unlikely.”
The crow cawed derisively.
“Why do you say such things?” Uwetsiageyv demanded.
“The dwarf believes,” explained the crow, “that in the Land of Giants, all things are giant—the humans, the animals, the trees, the stones. Every resident, no matter how likely or unlikely, is oversized, including creatures of the imagination—demons, river spirits and faeries.”
Uwetsiageyv thought for a moment how the dwarf, at both meetings, had referred to her as a faerie. Her initial argument had been that she was far too large to be considered a faerie, but not, it seemed, if the dwarf believed that she too hailed from the Land of Giants. Her thoughts were prevented from reaching their logical conclusion as the crow continued.
“Uwetsiageyv,” said the crow, “in his blind hatred for all things giant, the dwarf will stop at nothing to destroy us.”
“He doesn’t seem that way to me,” she said. “He has acted very cordially to me and helped me quite a bit.” She gestured to her snakeskin dress. “How do you explain that?”
“Hmm,” said the crow. “He is playing the long game.”
Only later, when she had temporarily parted ways with the crow, did the thought occur to Uwetsiageyv that she had failed to directly ask him, whether, as the dwarf believed, he and the owl truly did hail from a mythical Land of Giants. If not, she thought with a youthful optimism, this was all just a big misunderstanding.
June 3, 2016
“Are you the keeper of the dye?” Uwetsiageyv asked the brown thrashers when she was alone with them.
They seemed uninterested in her question. They swiped their beaks sideways through the leaf litter, hoping to drum up a beetle or some other tasty morsel.
Uwetsiageyv found the process oddly alien. Since she had stopped eating, the hunger in her belly never fully disappeared but had subsided to a dull ache. By chance, she passed a shrub bearing small, spherical, purple berries gathered in clusters. She didn’t recognize them and passingly suspected that they were inedible. However, before her gaze left the shrub, she was struck by another thought. Perhaps these berries, or some like them, were the source of the dye of which the dwarf had spoken.
She plucked one berry and held it between a thumb and finger. It presented some resistance, but she was able to crush it; an unsatisfying yellow fluid leaked from it. She decided that this color would not suit her, even if it was capable of staining the dress. She resolved to continue looking.
Later on the same day, she unexpectedly came upon a grove of mulberry trees in the middle of the forest. Hundreds of years old, they were grand but bent over and contorted with age, as if their spines had succumbed to a lifetime of labor. They still offered a few meager fruits, though most had fallen to the ground. Several brown thrashers picked idly at the fallen fruits.
Uwetsiageyv removed a mulberry still attached to one of the trees. It was overripe and deep purple. Soft to the touch, it stained her fingers though she had held it as gently as she could. These fruits she knew to be delicious. Lifting it to her mouth, she experienced a premonition of the familiar sweet flavor.
A thrasher squawked a dissonant warning, as if a predator had been spotted. It set off a chorus of similar calls.
Abruptly, Uwetsiageyv tossed the seed to the ground, scattering the brown thrashers. She recalled the tale of the Lotus Eaters, who could not leave their island for the stupor wrought in them by their diet. She was overcome by an irrational fear that perhaps the same rule held true here. This island, despite the presence of the lovely brown thrashers, was not to be her ultimate destination.
Her fingers remained stained. She thought to wipe them on the dress to see if the dye held to snakeskin. She would look good in a mulberry colored dress, she thought to herself. Again, she refrained. How silly she would look in a dress smeared with finger-painted streaks in the hue of every berry she found.
At that moment, all that seemed clear to Uwetsiageyv was that she did not understand the full consequences of her actions. She would wait for guidance from the dwarf, though she had been warned in no uncertain terms that her trust in him was sorely misplaced.
June 6, 2016
The Owl’s Diet
“Why did you take a bite out of the dwarf?” Uwetsiageyv asked the owl, in the starlit darkness that followed dusk.
The owl seemed to reflect on the question for a short span before he replied, “I was hungry. I hadn’t eaten in a while.”
Uwetsiageyv did not point out that none of them had eaten for weeks. This fact, however at odds with a physics-based reality, was incontrovertible. The owl was likely always hungry; it seemed at best an obtuse explanation.
“But why the dwarf?” Uwetsiageyv persisted.
A meteor flashed momentarily across the sky. Within a few seconds another appeared and just as quickly disappeared.
“It is the diet of owls.”
“Among other small, furry mammals.”
“Did he taste good?”
The owl cocked its head and fixed Uwetsiageyv with a curious look. “Why do you ask? Are you hungry?” Certainly, the owl was of no mind to recommend tough, leathery dwarf.
“No,” the girl said hastily. “What I meant was, if you come across him again, are you going to try to take another bite?”
The owl was silent for a while. He hooted and the call carried out to sea where no reply was forthcoming. He apparently disturbed several nearby brown thrashers, for they called out irritably from their nests for him to consider the hour and lower his voice. “An interesting question,” said the owl without answering it. “Do you think he has an alternative function?”
June 7, 2016
Uwetsiageyv bid farewell to the brown thrashers with a sense of disappointment. She had not discovered the dye with which she could reduce the translucency of her dress. Nor had she learned much about the patchy history of the dwarf, except that the crow, apparently caught in some ancestral paranoia, believed that the dwarf sought their destruction, while the owl continued to entertain thoughts of consuming him. She had not tasted the mulberries, though no flaw had she found in their appearance.
In short, on the morning of their departure, all seemed wrong with the world. Caught in these doldrums, Uwetsiageyv sulkily waved goodbye to the brown thrashers at the edges of the underbrush.
“It is unlikely I shall return,” she lamented with exaggerated solemnity.
“Why is that?” asked the crow, irritating her with his interruption of her performance.
“Well, we are headed toward other islands now, are we not?”
“Indeed,” agreed the crow.
“And how many islands are there?”
The crow looked to the owl, who replied, “One for each species of bird.”
“And how many species of bird are there?” asked Uwetsiageyv.
The owl replied with an analytical tone. “At current count, there are nine-thousand nine-hundred and fifty-six species, though the number fluctuates as some species disappear and others are discovered.”
“And how many,” asked Uwetsiageyv, “are we going to visit?”
“All of them, of course,” replied the owl.
“That could take a long time...”
“Did you have something else planned?” asked the crow.
Chapter 11. Toxostoma rufum
June 8, 2016
Drink your tea!
From the sky, it was immediately clear that the island was several times larger than any Uwetsiageyv had previously visited. Like the others, the slopes of the interior were well forested. The line of mountains that formed the spine of the island possessed a curious defect toward one end. A valley had formed, enclosed by mountains on three sides but open to a level forest that led down from a low ridge to the shore on the north. The deciduous forest was most lush in the valley. This verdant depression invited the visitors to land on the beach at a point which provided the least impeded access to the valley.
When they were on the ground, Uwetsiageyv hurried to her companions and announced, “I think that I detected the outline of a rectangular structure in the valley.” She had been bursting to convey this observation.
“Drink-your-tea!” The call interrupted whatever reply the owl and crow had in store. A solitary eastern towhee emerged from a thicket and danced over a stage of leaf litter. It repeated its call several times, the first two syllables sung quickly and the last one as a trill lasting a second or so. The bird was adorned with black feathers on his head and back, white on his belly, and warm rufous feathers on his sides. A piercing gaze emerged from solid red eyes surrounding a small, black pupil.
Although Uwetsiageyv knew the reaction her words would draw from the crow, she could not contain herself. “I absolutely adore the rufous-side towhee!” She turned her attention back to the bird. “Drink your tea!” she called out to it.
“Drink-your-tea!” replied the towhee, in what Uwetsiageyv interpreted as a rather insouciant manner.
The owl and the crow did not allow her to depart immediately in search of the rectangular form in the valley, where privately she hoped to find the dwarf. Rather, they admonished her to follow the prescribed ritual and drink from the waters of a pure stream on the island to replenish her strength before rushing off on errands of happenstance.
“You ought to make sure,” said the owl, “should your suspicion of a structure be confirmed, that you are in a proper, rejuvenated state to meet the one who built it.”
June 9, 2016
Thoughts from the Spire
Uwetsiageyv wandered in shadows beneath the dense canopy of leaves. While the songs of towhees continuously filled the forest, only rarely did a towhee make an appearance to check on her progress. She found their repeated instructions, “Drink-your-tea,” to offer little in the way of direction. Soon she was lost.
Once she passed the ridge, a high point between the valley and the shore, she knew to follow the descent of the land but the valley was expansive. Eventually, she conceded she would have to take to the air and reclaim her bearings. She waited until she found a spot where the canopy seemed thin enough to allow her to navigate between the large boughs and push through the leafy twigs. She leapt from the ground and burst forth to fly above the green surface, waving in the wind.
She could not immediately identify the location of the form she believed that she had seen. Therefore, she flew higher. In fact, she ascended until she was level with the highest peaks of the island’s spine. She found one needle-like point, barren of all growth and perched upon it. From this vantage point, she easily espied the structure in the forest beneath her. It was completely covered in greenery but the unnatural outline with its right angles contrasted sharply with the gentle forms surrounding it.
The wind blew against her with some force from her high aerie, whipping her black hair about her face. She contemplated the words of the owl. Someone must have constructed this rectangular edifice. Such was not the way of the dwarf. Perhaps, it was a prince, thought Uwetsiageyv, banished from the realm by an over-bearing father who had sought to improve his own reputation among the citizenry by distancing himself from the brilliance of his heir. We can see how Uwetsiageyv allowed herself to be carried away by her imagination.
She further imagined greeting the handsome prince in the shadows of the forest. She remained, of course, embarrassed by the translucency of her dress. Therefore, she kept to the darkness, partially hidden behind moss-covered trunks.
The prince mistook this behavior for coy flirting. He expressed his interest in one whom he assumed to be an uncivilized native with provocative words.
Taken aback, Uwetsiageyv called forth a murder of crows from the shadows around her, which pounced upon the prince, cloaking him in a cloud of frantic black feathers and vicious beaks. In a trice, he was gone.
Alone, atop the rocky spire, Uwetsiageyv pondered the resident of the unknown structure and rued that she had not yet found the dye for her dress. She felt certain that its absence would cause untold confusion.
June 10, 2016
The Rectangular Plot
Uwetsiageyv circled down gradually into the valley, keeping her eye on the structure cloaked in the foliage of the forest. She opted to land a hundred yards away in order to approach the edifice on foot, thinking that she might be better able to observe the resident before revealing herself. Only a towhee noted her arrival and she did not alter her song to account for the bird girl’s presence.
Thus Uwetsiageyv slipped between the trunks until she stood at the edge of the clearing. Reservations regarding her dress were only partially suppressed as she surveyed the perimeter.
It appeared that the building had fallen into a state of neglect. Only the walls remained standing and they were completely cloaked by a thick layer of vines bearing large, flat leaves that hid the underlying stonework completely from view. The roof seemed to have fallen completely. Not a single rafter remained upright.
Uwetsiageyv waited in the safety of the forest for someone to appear but she found no sign old or new of a resident. Her courage bolstered by the undaunted song of the rufous-sided towhee, Uwetsiageyv made her way into the clearing. She walked the rectangular outline of the wall in the light of the sun. On the far side, she discovered a wrought iron gate. Peering through this gate, she observed that she had been mistaken. These walls had never been part of a building. Rather, they formed a barrier around a small plot of land. Through the gaps between the cylindrical bars of the gate, Uwetsiageyv observed a single pile of rocks, stacked perhaps four and a half feet high and covered over many years in an unblemished, velvety pall of moss.
Uwetsiageyv could but conclude that she had found a cemetery with a single resident. She opened the gate, which responded with a satisfyingly long, slow creak and stepped inside to introduce herself.
June 13, 2016
The prince was not as Uwetsiageyv had imagined him. Inordinately shy, he refused to come out from beneath the pile of rocks stacked above him. He did not greet her and, only after Uwetsiageyv had called out, “Hello?”, did he reply in a timid voice, which managed to escape through the gaps between the stones.
“Drink-your-tea,” said the prince, which made Uwetsiageyv laugh. Apparently, the prince had spent a long time in the exclusive company of rufous-sided towhees and his vocabulary had adjusted accordingly.
Uwetsiageyv paced the interior perimeter of the vine covered walls of the cemetery. The ground beneath the southern wall was carpeted in a particularly thick layer of the vivid green moss that covered the stones of the grave less completely She took off her shoes and trod barefoot through the cool, damp, forgiving surface.
A towhee, perched atop the wall, called approvingly. It seemed to serve the role of the court minister of this simple, remote outpost.
Uwetsiageyv asked the prince to forgive her intrusion. She had spied his rural palace from the sky and had thought to pay her respects. “I hope I am not disturbing you,” she concluded.
The buried prince took his time in replying. Eventually, human words came to him and he spoke thus, “No, no, it’s no trouble at all. While one can hardly find fault in the kind attentions of my retinue of towhees, the visit of another species is not unwelcome, especially a fetching bird girl.” To show the quality of his upbringing, the prince said nothing of the scandalous manner in which she was attired.
Uwetsiageyv was unsure of how to reply to what she suspected was intended as a compliment. In the ensuing silence, she haltingly executed a curtsy. “I am afraid,” she said, “that I have come to you in an hour of need.”
“Oh, think nothing of it,” said the prince. “It is the privilege of royalty to grant aid to those in want, be they citizens or well-meaning travelers, passing through the realm. I only hope that, with my meager resources, I am able to accommodate your request.”
“You are too gracious,” said Uwetsiageyv, embarrassed now that she had shortly before imagined him in a much less flattering light. “I seek a dye to color this dress, so that it allows me to more appropriately present myself. Do you know of a chemical that will take to snakeskin?”
Again, a substantial pause ensued while the prince considered the request. After several minutes had passed, he answered, “Yes and no.”
“Yes and no?” repeated Uwetsiageyv.
“Yes,” said the prince, “I know of such a dye and even have it close by within my possession.”
“And no, I fear if you apply it to your dress, you will become far less presentable than your current state.”
“Tell me of the dye so that I may judge for myself,” said Uwetsiageyv, whose desire to be rid of the translucency of the dress was not to be easily thwarted.
“Here, beneath this barrow mound,” said the prince, in a melancholy tone, “I am cloaked in an impenetrable darkness. A single drop of this pitch applied to the dress would render it as opaque as oblivion itself. But I fear that its inscrutability would reflect in an unfavorable way upon you, the wearer, who are yet young and full of life.”
To be fair, Uwetsiageyv considered the prince’s offer. It would be crude of us to speculate that she traded a pinprick of her blood for a tiny vial containing a single drop of the prince’s deathly elixir. Where would she have found the needle to prick her finger? Where would she have hidden the vial? Indeed her sock was now empty of silken thread, but could she have kept the vial hidden until the time she stained the dress by other means? Could she have applied this added drop clandestinely with no one but she and the prince the wiser? We think it most fair to conclude that Uwetsiageyv thanked the prince for his kind hospitality but left the cemetery empty handed. In doing so we knowingly attribute the rumors that an air of death clung to Uwetsiageyv in the years of her senescence to the ordinary decline associated with the aging process.
June 14, 2016
Thoughts Not Shared at a Small Estuary
On the night before their departure from the Island of the Rufous-Sided Towhees, Uwetsiageyv sought out the company of the crow, who had retreated to a small estuary where one of the mountain streams exchanged fresh water for the salt water of the surrounding ocean. At dusk, the marshy land was permeated by the songs of various species of frogs—pig, bull and tree.
The crow stood in still water that reached several inches up his black legs. Uwetsiageyv did not want to fly the following day with wet shoes; she therefore remained standing some ways back on dry sand.
“What did you find at the house at the bottom of the valley?” asked the crow.
“It wasn’t a house,” answered Uwetsiageyv, “It was a grave.”
The crow shrugged; to his thinking a tomb was a kind of house.
“There was a prince there,” Uwetsiageyv elaborated. “He had traveled these islands, much as we are now, and had selected this one to call home. He lived here for many years, befriended by the towhees, until there was no more life left in him.”
The crow nodded, satisfied. With this much information, he could reconstruct the remainder of the details of the prince’s life on his own.
“It would make a wonderful fairy tale,” said Uwetsiageyv, “if more people knew about it.”
The crow disagreed. Many lives passed without recognition; he suspected that the failure of a life to be celebrated by a sizeable host did not lessen its intrinsic worth. Of course, this philosophical position relied on the acceptance of an underlying virtue in this universe, independent of that assigned by its sentient inhabitants, whose judgment was, in any case, eminently fallible. Since the crow had no irrefutable evidence for his position, he kept his thoughts to himself.
In a common silence, Uwetsiageyv daydreamed, wondering if the purpose of her travels through these islands was, like the prince, only to discover a home, as the owl had first advised, where she might find comfort with the terms of her existence. We shall admit that not knowing her purpose caused her some non-negligible degree of anxiety, a sensation not unfamiliar to many of us.
Chapter 12. Archilochus colubris
June 15, 2016
Despite the sense of cleansing that flight in the unsullied heights provided, Uwetsiageyv could not entirely shed a deep, foreboding sense of mourning. Perhaps the prince had lived and died exactly as he had desired, abstaining from war, intrigue and other idle habits of monarchs, but it still seemed to Uwetsiageyv that his utter anonymity was poor recompense for an exemplary life.
She found relief only when a particular smell, carried by the wind, reached her. It was this aromatic trigger that prompted her to scan the horizon and visually to detect a dot appearing on the surface of the sea. For the first time, she called out the presence of the island before either of her companions had alerted her to it.
The smell disappeared as the current of the wind shifted but emerged again as they drew closer. “Honeysuckle!” Uwetsiageyv called to the crow and owl, but they hailed from avian families without a refined sense of smell and therefore could not detect it.
The island appeared as an amorphous blob, the crown of an enormous, underwater mountain, its sides rising steeply from the shore. A sparse forest clung to these slopes, the gangly, deciduous trees growing at angles to the surface. Aside from the patches of green, bundles of orange, pink and white decorated the island.
As they drew closer, Uwetsiageyv recognized chains of the orange and red blossoms of the trumpet creeper draped over the trees. Honeysuckle, with white petals surrounding yellow stamen, appeared in more closely grouped bundles, suspended from the branches. A third prominent variety of flower, with petals from pink to violet, also adorned the island. Upon closer inspection, by their aroma did Uwetsiageyv observe these to be another breed of honeysuckle.
By the time that the trio alit on the edge of the island, their ears were inundated with the hum of wings beating many tens of times per second. The cause was easy to detect for the ruby-throated hummingbirds showed no fear of the new arrivals. They remained intent on sampling the nectar of the various flowers and expending no small amount of the energy thus harvested in chasing each other across the island.
“Hummingbirds?” said the crow to the bird girl, inviting her typical assessment.
“Everyone loves hummingbirds,” Uwetsiageyv explained in a muted tone, as if that excused her from having an unusually strong affection for these birds.
“You reserve your special attention for those less widely appreciated?” asked the owl, watching her carefully.
Uwetsiageyv watched the iridescent flashes of red and green dance and hover not a dozen feet from her. There was an indisputable grace and beauty to their appearance and movement. To the owl she replied, “Indeed, I have always found that it is the unloved who are most in need of attention.”
Of course, we cannot deny that it was Uwetsiageyv’s own experience of neglect as an orphan, which had nurtured such a sentiment within her. Still, we should not so cavalierly dismiss virtue for there are many, subject to similar misfortunes, in whom such wisdom failed to take root.
June 16, 2016
After the trio had drunk from a pool formed at the base of a streaming fall, Uwetsiageyv took her leave of the owl and the crow. She followed the darting forms of hummingbirds, skirting the edge of the steep incline that led to the interior of the island. The terrain was uneven and she was forced to clamber from stone to stone until she abandoned her slow terrestrial progress and took to the air. Even airborne her clumsiness was accentuated by the meticulous procedures of the hummingbirds.
She lost all interest in the hummingbirds, though they continued to buzz in the background, when she caught sight of the dwarf, Colugo. He sat out on a flat stone, surrounded by water, located at the bottom of a sheer rock cliff against which the sea relentlessly beat. He seemed to be sun-bathing for he had removed his jacket and shirt. His chest was excessively hairy and his skin was tanned save for the pale scar where the owl had bitten him.
He held no interest for the hummingbirds, who for their part turned their attention to the trumpet creepers dangling down the face of the cliff.
“Colugo,” said Uwetsiageyv as she landed beside him on the stone. “It’s so good to see you!” She uttered these words with genuine delight for conversing with the dead prince had lacked a certain quality present in an exchange with a living being, even a dwarf.
The dwarf was taken back by the bird girl’s enthusiasm, as if it had never occurred to him that he might legitimately be the cause of such unrestrained ebullience.
The surf came in and crashed against the stone, splashing water on both the girl and the dwarf, as he rose to his feet. He eyed her dress, noting with satisfaction how it showed absolutely no sign of wear in the time that had elapsed. “I found your dye,” he whispered to the girl.
Such was Uwetsiageyv’s joy that she would have hugged him, bare-chested and all, had he not shied away from her initial embrace. Only briefly did she consider his continued whispering; she had a difficult time reconciling his fear of another battle with the owl and his brazen exposure out on this stone. At best, they were partially hidden by the cliff looming above them. Casting these thoughts aside, Uwetsiageyv asked excitedly, “Where is it?”
The dwarf led her a few steps over to a gap between the stone and the rocky edge of the cliff. A small channel of water, not five feet wide, separated the two. It appeared to extend into darkness; hiding its depth. “Down here,” said the dwarf, pointing into the churning water.
“How do we get it?” asked Uwetsiageyv in an uncertain tone. She was not keen on diving into this narrow space, where the currents were swift and uncertain.
“I brought tools,” said the dwarf. He gestured to a chunk of stone, weighing perhaps a hundred pounds and two rough, wooden sticks, each four feet in length. To Uwetsiageyv the tools seemed all too crude for this important task.
“What is your plan?”
“Why, it’s quite simple,” whispered the dwarf. “We grab hold of the stone and sink with it until we find the keepers of the dye. Then we poke them with sticks until they surrender it.”
“Holding our breath all the while?” Uwetsiageyv asked.
“That would be for the best,” confirmed the dwarf.
June 17, 2016
They sat side by side, on the edge of the rock, with their legs dangling in the tepid water and the stone, which would take them to the bottom, lying between them. Uwetsiageyv had removed her socks and shoes. They lay neatly near the center of the rock, where she hoped they would remain dry.
They awkwardly scooted the stone to the very edge while trying to keep hold of their sticks. A lone hummingbird bid them good luck with a buzzing flyby, before returning to its survey of the blooms on the cliff face. With a grunt, the dwarf slid the stone into the water and, each holding onto to it with both hands, they plummeted into the depths.
The sensation terrified Uwetsiageyv. She felt that she had descended hundreds of feet into submarine darkness, though the drop lasted only a dozen seconds.
The dwarf tapped her on the arm, none too gently, with his stick to get her attention so that she released the stone. She could barely make out his shape and his facial expression was entirely lost. She observed him dragging the stick along the one of the rock surfaces, close on either side. These walls were pitted with small cavities. When he found one, the dwarf stuck the end of the stick into it. He was rewarded by the emergence of an octopus, which once free of the confining rock expanded to such a size that it seemed improbable that it could have ever occupied such a small space.
Uwetsiageyv batted at it with her stick, as if it were a cephalopod shaped piñata. The drag of the water slowed her swing. The octopus easily dodged the blow, but her aggressive maneuver had raised its ire all the same. The octopus blasted her with a cloud of ink, as it dashed away.
As this first cloud expanded and diluted, the dwarf had already provoked two additional octopi. Although, Uwetsiageyv could barely see them in the growing darkness, she swung madly and they obligingly released their ink. Soon the bird girl and the dwarf were entirely cloaked in an opaque inky blackness. Several times Uwetsiageyv was fairly sure that in the close quarters she inadvertently struck the dwarf.
A minute passed in a flash. She could not hold her breath much longer. She was not even sure if the dwarf yet remained in the depths, for she could not see him. Perhaps, he had already begun his return to the surface. With as full a stroke of her wings as the walls allowed, she propelled herself upward. Just before she lunged ahead, a hand grasped one of her ankles and the dwarf was dragged along behind her.
Doubt assailed her during this ascension, for her lungs threatened to rebel and gasp for breath, be it of water or air. However, she managed to break the surface, and as she gulped for air, she kicked her leg upward, bringing the dwarf to the surface as well.
Gasping they hauled themselves out of the water onto the sun-baked rock. Lying on his belly, the dwarf looked over at Uwetsiageyv’s face then scanned down the length of her dress. He made no judgment, for in truth he preferred the fabric of the snakeskin in its natural translucency. Still, it was not the place of the tailor to dictate fashion sense, only to tastefully accommodate the desires of the client.
Uwetsiageyv rolled over onto her back, her wings splayed out beneath her, and took several more deep breaths. She then sat up and looked down at her dress. There was no sign of ink on her flesh; rising through the water had rinsed her clean. However, the snakeskin miraculously had adsorbed the dark pigment of the octopus in all its inkiness. The dress, while still wet, appeared utterly black. As it dried in the sun, it became a dark, slate gray textured by the underlying pattern of the snakeskin. It appeared, to Uwetsiageyv’s great satisfaction, entirely opaque.
She lay back on the stone and looked over at the dwarf, who had already risen and was putting his shirt back on. “What a relief!” she said to herself. To the dwarf, she added, “Thank you. Thank you. Now, I am happy with this dress.”
June 20, 2016
With a running start, the dwarf leapt the five-foot channel separating the rock upon which they stood from the face of the cliff. He was swallowed by the mouth of a small cave, just above the water level. His head did not re-emerge from the shadows to bid Uwetsiageyv farewell.
She stood for a while, examining her winged shadow cast by the sun on the rough surface, while puzzling over his abrupt departure. When it appeared that the dwarf did not intend to leave the cave any time soon, Uwetsiageyv went to collect her shoes, only to find that they were missing. The waves that broke against the edges of the rock did not splash into the very center of the stone, which was dry as bone. Therefore, it was impossible that the shoes had been washed away while she and the dwarf had been diving for dye.
There was only one plausible conclusion; her shoes had been stolen. Her suspicion immediately fell upon the dwarf. He had disappeared so suddenly, running away from her. It was entirely possible that she had failed to notice her shoes clutched beneath one arm.
A hummingbird descended from tending to the trumpet creepers on the cliff face to remind Uwetsiageyv that she and the dwarf were not the only two visitors to the island. Certainly, it fell within the realm of possibilities that either the crow or the owl had swooped down to the rock and flown away with her shoes, perhaps in punishment for her consorting with one whom they considered to be an inveterate enemy.
Uwetsiageyv held no special fondness for those shoes other than they were the only ones in her possession. Moreover, her stocks had been tucked inside. They too were gone.
She considered the balance of the day—her dress had been dyed to suit her but she had lost her socks and shoes in the process. She reluctantly accepted that it had been a favorable exchange.
Nevertheless, she flew off the rock in something of a huff. Rather than climb the steep slope of the island on foot, she ascended by wing and circled it a dozen times before a hummingbird alerted her to the sight of the white plumage of the owl moving through the sparse canopy.
She alit beside the owl, who took in the newly dyed black dress and Uwetsiageyv’s barefoot state, with the simple observation, “So, you have elected to choose black over white.”
Uwetsiageyv suspected that the owl intended this comment as some kind of judgment as if she had selected this color as a signal of her preference for the crow over the owl. She could easily have explained to him that had there been a species of dress-staining octopus with ink of white, she might very well have gone a different direction. However, she remained annoyed by the loss of her shoes and had not eliminated the owl from the list of potential culprits. Consequently, she let the owl’s remark go unanswered.
June 21, 2016
The Summer Solstice
They departed the Island of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbird on the night of the Summer Solstice. It happened by chance to also correspond to the full moon. Previously the crow and owl had chosen to leave an island early in the morning. However, perhaps because there proved sufficient light from the moon, the crow proposed that they leave shortly after midnight, a suggestion with which the owl agreed. Uwetsiageyv had remained only half-awake with the others at a point near the island’s peak. As the crow beckoned her, she stretched her wings and yawned.
In silver light, they slipped away while the female hummingbirds remained secure in their thimble-like nests and the males slept on nearby perches.
Through-out history peoples have celebrated Midsummer's Eve with a variety of customs. In the orphanage, a pudding was served that appeared only at that time of year. As she climbed into the sky, Uwetsiageyv felt no longing for pudding, nor other traditions of the people she had left behind. Here there was only the salt of the sea, the scars of the moon, scattered birds and the cold, night wind on her bare feet.
The crow led them to higher altitudes quickly for he sensed the gathering shadow looming just below the surface of the water. He feared the epochal magic of the solstice had drawn the serpent from the depths.
Chapter 13. Columba livia
June 22, 2016
They arrived without maritime mishap at the next island, a rather squarish affair with a preponderance of old elm and chestnut growth dominating the interior. Even as they approached, the residents became clear for several small flocks shifted over various corners of the island. These birds were larger in size than any of the songbirds they had yet encountered; the movements in the air were clumsier as well.
Once the trio of visitors landed on the beach, a dozen birds settled nearby to investigate the newcomers.
“Rock pigeons,” Uwetsiageyv said to the crow with a tone of modest surprise.
Cooing reprovingly, the birds strutted back and forth to demonstrate their natural magnificence. Uwetsiageyv admired the iridescent throat feathers glittering pink and green in the late morning sun even as she smirked at their ungainly waddle.
Uwetsiageyv’s familiarity with these birds came not from her walks in the forest but from organized visits into the city, where rock pigeons gathered in numbers in parks and often in alleys where food waste was scattered around refuse bins. To a bird they seemed to have settled their attention on Uwetsiageyv, whom they watched expectantly. “I’m sorry,” she said to the assembled crowd, “I didn’t bring anything for you.”
The owl released a scoffing hoot. “They haven’t been standing around here for years waiting for you to arrive and feed them by hand.”
Ignoring the owl, Uwetsiageyv continued speaking to the rock pigeons, sharing a thought that had grown in her mind as she had flown to the island. Lifting one bare foot, she said, “I lost my shoes.” Recalling the dwarf’s ability to craft a dress from materials available on these islands, she had resolved to follow suit. “I’m thinking about moccasins,” she announced. “For that, I’ll need some kind of leather.” To the pigeons she cordially asked, though she had brought them nothing in exchange, “Do you have anything like that on your island?”
June 23, 2016
The Wonderful Net
The rock pigeons themselves did not wear shoes. That reason as much as any other may be responsible for their lack of interest in assisting Uwetsiageyv with her task. She tried expounding the virtues of shoes, saying, “They protect your socks, which keep your feet warm on cold nights.”
The physiology of the pigeon, like many other birds, was such that they required the insulating effect of feathers everywhere except their legs and feet. Instead the feet of birds possessed a wonderful adaptation—a fine, netlike pattern of arteries that interwove warm blood from the bird's heart with the veins carrying cold blood. This arrangement provided the feet with sufficient heat to keep them from freezing. As if unaware of the timescale required to alter one’s physiology, the rock pigeons recommended that Uwetsiageyv try out a similar technique.
Later, perhaps in response to this suggestion, Uwetsiageyv confided to the crow, “Some people say pigeons are stupid.”
“Do they?” said the crow.
“What do you think?”
“It could be,” said the crow, “that pigeons simply have an under-appreciated sense of humor.”
June 24, 2016
The Comedy Routine
In an attempt to verify the crow’s speculation regarding the sense of humor of pigeons, Uwetsiageyv waited until a crowd had assembled around her. Then, beneath the boughs of a chestnut, she repeated jokes that had circulated in the orphanage when she was a younger child still interested in such things.
“Why did the pigeon cross the road?”
It was a tough audience. The pigeons fixed her with expressions of excruciating apathy.
“Because it was the chicken’s day off...” She trailed off at the end of the punchline, anticipating the underwhelming response. Preschool children appreciated that joke. Perhaps, the intellect of the pigeon had not yet reached such an advanced state.
“Laugh!” she ordered, stamping her foot in their direction.
The pigeons cooed in exasperation and their wings flapped noisily as they circled once before resuming their previous positions.
She tried another joke, one that had been told often in her presence.
“How many humps does a camel have?”
She gave the pigeons a few moments to formulate their replies, before announcing the answer. “Three if Uwetsiageyv is riding it!”
She slapped her belly and gave a mocking guffaw.
The pigeons, startled by the abrupt sound, launched back into the air, circled once, contemplating the proximity to the annoying bird girl before choosing as a flock to seek more sublime accommodations elsewhere.
June 27, 2016
A Mistaken Death
When a tree has suffered substantial damage to its root system, it can die in parts, very slowly, each spring another section of branches fails to leaf. Other portions of the same tree can present their full complement of greenery, made all the more vivid by the neighboring skeletal branches. A tree undergoing this transformation can stabilize, the progressive decay halted for a considerable period of time. An observer, noting the initial rate of annual death in the tree may predict that the entire tree will succumb within a matter of five years. However as the gradual decay slows, the observer may revise their estimate—ten years. Finally, one spring the observer may concede that despite the initial, dire predictions, the tree is likely to outlast his own life. Such is the life of man, who ponders the ephemerality of others while forgetting his own transient nature.
Uwetsiageyv came upon just such a tree, in which the main trunk had forked at a height of a dozen feet, and a living half was joined to the remains of a dead half. The tree had sloughed off the bark of its dead wood.
The bird girl stood beneath it. She picked up sheaths of bark and lifting a foot, imagined a shoe with sole cut from this material. When the pressure of her foot touched it, the bark snapped into unequal halves.
“Useless!” she said tossing the pieces to the ground.
The rock pigeons who had been watching her cooed disapprovingly. They adored this dear old elm who had, through the exercise of a prodigious will, chosen to remain for a longer time in their company on the island paradise.
Uwetsiageyv fantasized about shoes of a sturdier material, perhaps made of bone, perhaps upside-down skulls of a creature with an elongated foot-shaped head. Uwetsiageyv imagined just such a creature, the foothead, who had, unfortunately, been hunted in pairs to extinction by a short-sighted race who prized too much durable footwear over the continued proliferation of a natural biodiversity.
June 28, 2016
The crow circled overhead for more than an hour before spying the bird girl. She apparently had fallen asleep with her back against the trunk of a chestnut tree. As she slept, she had slumped to one side and was now curled up at the base of the tree, with her wings close about her. Her form had largely been hidden by the foliage, which blocked the late afternoon light. A pigeon had nestled in the crook of her lap. One eye of the bird remained open.
Quietly descending, the crow came to a rest some distance away and approached on foot. The crow hesitated in waking the girl. He had not previously encountered her sleeping during the day. Perhaps she had over exerted herself or, more likely, a worry weighed her down. The crow tried to imagine what sort of worry a bird girl might know. It was a difficult task owing to the fact that crow conceived only of the externalities of her situation. She traveled on an extended island vacation with no end in sight. She was not tasked with any duties, onerous or otherwise. She came and went as she pleased, free to pursue her own interests. Her companions did not press her regarding her uselessness in contributing to the search they conducted. For what more could anyone ask?
Still, the crow did not wake her. They would leave the Island of the Rock Pigeons on the following morning. He let her sleep through the late setting of the sun and into the night.
Uwetsiageyv awoke in the darkness before dawn to find the crow standing watch over her. His black silhouette blocked out a section of the starlit tapestry behind him. She rose to a sitting position and dislodged the pigeon beside her, who noisily flew away.
“Is it time to go?” she asked the crow.
“Soon,” he answered.
“Where is Chwèt?”
The crow looked surprised. “I didn’t think that he had shared his name with you.”
“He hasn’t,” Uwetsiageyv admitted. “The dwarf told me.”
The crow contemplated the fading, starry sky. “That,” he said, “is a betrayal that I advise you not to bring to our companion’s attention.”
“It’s just a name,” Uwetsiageyv said, rising to her feet and stretching her arms and wings.
The crow sighed, as only crows can. He had formulated an idea that the girl’s travels with them served as a kind of education. But here he was faced with evidence that she remained as ignorant as ever. To the stars he said, “Only a name. Only a form. Only a moment.” It was neither his insignificance nor his ephemerality that perturbed him, only the pejorative manner in which it was expressed.
Chapter 14. Zonotrichia albicollis
June 29, 2016
Before the crow, the owl and the bird girl descended on the small island, they were greeted by a pair of white-throated sparrows, while still at a considerable height. The sparrows caught their attention with a familiar song, “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody!” Though small, the birds were easily identified by their black eye stripes, white crown, yellow brow, and, of course, the white throat bordered by a strip of black whiskers.
The trio followed the smaller birds not to the beach, which was their typical point of arrival on an island, but to a clearing farther inland, paved in stone. An unusual geological formation had created a sheet of rock that defied cracking and provided no purchase for flora of any kind. Thus was the dense forest held at bay. Over time, it seemed even the surrounding forest floor had risen with the accumulated detritus of life and death, causing the roughly circular stone surface to appear as a slight depression.
Into this arena, perhaps fifty feet in diameter, Uwetsiageyv and her companions were led. The stone was mottled in hue—veins of off-white grays wove through an almost black matrix. Fragments of quartz and other minerals had been captured in the stone, some of which were positioned so that they reflected the early morning light.
One can attribute to the features of this surface the fact that the new arrivals did not detect the purpose behind the white-throated sparrows bringing them to this particular location until they were almost upon it.
“Are those your shoes?” asked the owl of Uwetsiageyv. He gestured with a wing to two objects set near the center of the stone plateau.
“Certainly not.” Uwetsiageyv originally took them to be an unusual feature of the rock formation, for their surface bore some material that reflected light in a manner not entirely at odds with that of quartz. However, seized by doubt, Uwetsiageyv stepped closer to investigate for there was something very shoe-like about the objects.
When she stood above them, Uwetsiageyv discovered with a combination of delight and dismay that not only were these objects shoes, but in fact they were her black leather shoes, which she had lost on the Island of the Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds. However, some misguided cobbler had modified the appearance of the shoes by adhering to all available external surfaces something that Uwetsiageyv finally conceded were the scales of a fish.
With the crow and the owl now flanking her, Uwetsiageyv crouched down and picked up the shoes. As confirmation of their ownership, she found one of her white cotton socks tucked neatly inside each shoe, just as she had left them. She balanced on one foot as she put on one sock and slipped her foot in a shoe. Then she repeated the balancing act until she stood on both feet between the owl and the crow.
Uwetsiageyv stared down at the shoes, they had the look of old stones of a sea wall, encrusted with barnacles. To put it mildly, she had much preferred the shoes as they had left them. If there was a perspective from which these shoes could be deemed fashionable or artistic, it entirely eluded her. As comfortable as she found the shoes, she could not deny that their appearance was nothing short of hideous. She stepped forward and turned about so that she faced the crow and the owl. “What do you think?”
As we know, neither the crow nor the owl had any compunction against letting their true feelings be known. However, in this case, it seemed the sight of the shoes was punishment enough; neither felt the need to amplify the moment with cruel words.
“How do they fit?” asked the crow, in an embarrassed tone.
“Perfectly,” admitted the bird girl in a sorrowful voice.
“Well, that’s something,” concluded the owl, before marching off toward the forest to begin his search of the island.
June 30, 2016
When the owl was but a half step from the western edge of the sunken stone platform, the dwarf chose to make his entrance from the north. He stopped only a few steps into the clearing.
The eyes of the owl, the crow, the bird girl and a dozen or so white-throated sparrows settled on his tanned and wrinkled face.
A silence followed, accompanied by a motionless disturbed only by the fidgety hopping of the sparrows. Breaking the silence, the dwarf asked cheerily, “How do you like your glass slippers?”
Uwetsiageyv shifted her gaze from the dwarf to her shoes then back again. “Glass slippers?” she repeated in a quiet voice. After a pause, she added, “I always imagined glass slippers to be...smoother.”
“And the fit?” the dwarf asked, beaming as if she had paid him the greatest compliment.
“They fit perfectly,” she said, just as she had reported moments early to the crow and owl. Of course, she noted to herself, they had already been comfortably worn in before the dwarf had ever laid his hands on them.
The dwarf waved a hand in a flourish in the direction of the bird girl, as if introducing her to the royal members in attendance at a society ball. To the crow he said, “And what do you think, Mr. Kònèy?”
The crow scrutinized Uwetsiageyv. The black snakeskin dress glinted in the sunlight, as did the facets in the scales on her shoes. A breeze shifted both the feathers in her lustrous black wings. A lock of black hair fell across her face. The crow pronounced solemnly, “I suppose that she will do.”
Uwetsiageyv frowned. She had been expecting an assessment of her ensemble not of her person as a whole and certainly nothing so dour.
The dwarf ignored her expression. To the owl, he said, “And you, Mr. Chwèt? What say you?”
The owl had turned; his back was now to the forest. He eyed the dwarf, who twitched nervously and discreetly glanced behind himself to reassure himself that he was only a step or two away from the relative security of the forest. “Mr. R. A. Peach,” said the owl, enunciating the name carefully. “I have no more fondness for your handiwork than I do for you.”
The dwarf folded his burly arms across his chest. “As you well know, I am not responsible for the design, only the craftsmanship, with which, if I do say so myself, there is little to find fault.”
The owl’s wide gaze returned to Uwetsiageyv. He said to her, almost apologetically, “I would hold you accountable for inviting the enemy into our midst, except, each time this happens, I become increasingly convinced that the role of bird girl is that of the unwitting fool.”
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