An essay by an anonymous collector, as provided by H. Pueyo
Art by Leigh Legler
The anatomy of their bodies is quite singular–a single head, two normal arms and legs of varying sizes, a common torso of proportionate shape, slightly wider to fit their potent lungs, feet en pointe like a ballerina, with claws instead of nails, and two long, magnificent wings. Each of their kind tends to have certain similar features: peacocks with their low flights and impressive males, nightingales with tedious colors but remarkable singing, the terrestrial variety known as “the chicken,” ravens as black as night, and the large blue macaws.
Only legends mention a creature so rare it is said to be born only once every fifty years, always of genitors of different phenotypes in a solitary egg at the top of the highest tree. They call it the bird-of-paradise, and it sings more beautifully than any living bird, only to die, tragically, disappearing for the following half-century. As a collector, I have been both skeptical and fascinated by the story, as determined to find the truth as I am to find a new subspecies to add to my own, particular compilation.
Thirty-seven days, five trebuchets, two thousand men and women, and a large amount of intricate iron nets–that’s what it took to capture him. Birds can be borderline impossible to hunt, considering their location is far beyond the reach of any other intelligent species, so we had to camp for weeks under the dense tropical vegetation. In the past, my species has committed the heinous mistake of logging, which only caused them to grow suspicious and move with a frequency. Now, we wait until they appear flying. The chickens are, in theory, more endangered, but we rarely pay them any attention. They live inside the hollow trunks of large trees, and spy on us from the little holes they make, and use that to warn the birds from up above.
Each habitable tree is so tall one cannot possibly see where they end, and they are believed to be at least 120 meters in average. The trunks are also incredibly thick and spacious, capable of supporting the different constructions those tricky beasts make inside them. Ignorant individuals have tried to climb them countless times, and the few who lived have discovered some valuable information. One–short-distance types like fowls and peacocks live in the lower levels, and are able to fly inside the trees as well, with the help of wooden branches. Two–this is how they communicate with soaring and gliding birds. Three–although there is no way to enter the trees from the outside, only from above, at certain heights you can find external terraces on which to rest. And four, and most important–the trees are clogged with enormous hives of deadly wasps and bees.
So we wait in the middle of the fetid mangrove, fight mosquitoes, and take turns in bird watching. We eat from palms and small animals, drink sweetwater, and observe from day to night below the crown shyness, the unbearable humidity, and the shades of emerald, turquoise, and aquamarine.
“Anything?” I ask that same afternoon, preparing one of the nets. The chickens decided to welcome us with a gift: hanging from branches, about 20 pair of horns bump softly against each other with the breeze. The horns of my people, from hunters like me. Dark and light, twisted, short, medium and long, protuberant and smooth, made of the special keratin quartz and ivory growing from our skulls. I point to the horns, carved with the specific symbols of the birds like wooden work. “How lovely.”
None of us really care, just like they are used to our hunting. We prey on each other, that’s how things are, and still we live in harmony.
And then, hearing of “two cockatoos, and a weird canary,” the words melted into the distant singing of birds, I see it.
“Step aside!” My hands move as if they are not my own, throwing two of my workers to the moist grass. “That one!” I point up, almost insane. “That’s not a canary, you fool!” The rapid vision won’t come out of my mind, as the others are confused and slow, not following what was truly happening. I use the hardest net, and run inside the catapult.
Around me, no one understands, until the bird hits the floor, struggling and completely tangled. He kicks, but is unable to fly, and looks at me, wide-eyed and aghast.
“Oh, yes, yes, you–I was searching for you.”
This specimen is like nothing I’ve seen before. Enticed again, I observe the interior of his cage. His fine stature–shorter than me, taller than average–frames shoulders broader than his little waist and hips ampler than his slim legs; his long hair reaches the lower part of his noticeable ribcage in curly waves of amber and brown, covering the lengthy neck; his narrow, gamboge eyes stare at me, his upturned nose twitches, and his thick mouth curls, all in curious vigilance. He stands on two zygodactyl-like feet, much like our own, but digitigrade and with tree sharp claws and a hallux in each.
The most extraordinary thing is the color palette, of course. Those large wings are completely golden, not yellow like a canary, but like the purest, most exquisite nugget. Each feather looks as if it was scraped from the stone and turned into gold leaf, glistening, and the bones are so long the wings cover most of his body. Not only the wings, but his skin is also light honey with gilded ends, just like his eyes, claws, and hair.
Every bird–or alário, their official yet forgotten name, as signed in the Common Agreement Between Species–has a unique feature in their pair of wings. In my collection, I fancy color and shape more than mere prowess. Grass green and cyan parakeets in the realm of the small and medium, pinches of red in the shamrock wings of parrots, concealed eyes in the multicolored peacocks … This one surpasses all of them, even when it’s almost painful to look at such brightness.
“I know you can understand me,” I advise softly, touching the bars of the cage made on demand specifically for his body. The color and material fit him, but it has barely space for him to move. I am fluent in the six main tongues of their region, all but the chirping and tweeting. Albeit a humble wing collector, I do enjoy the pleasures of music, and I’d rather hear their songs before pinning their disembodied wings to my walls. “Sing for me.”
Inside his golden enclosure, his bright eyes defy me, and he sets those plump rose lips apart, only to close them again and cross his arms.
The shackles are golden as well.
“Fine. Eventually, you will.”
Our anatomical differences unsettle him. I know that because every time I approach his cage, and my horns clash against the shiny bars–a low toc reverberates inside my brain–he flinches, glancing warily at me. Of all the seven intelligent species inhabiting the land, birds are known for their reclusive behavior and unwillingness to interact with the rest of us, with the sole exception of the ones incapable of reaching the higher trees with sheer flying ability. The taller the tree, the lesser the birds living in it have interacted with us–terrestrial kind–which makes me believe he must have never seen one of mine before, save for the hanging horns they fancy cutting and hanging as decoration.
“Curious?” I point at the top of my head, pulling the pitch-black hair aside. He blinks. There is a perfect spot for me to lean my forehead against the cage, one with two spaces between the bars to accommodate the protuberances waiting above. “Here.”
My bird is cautious. He leaves the swing, moving his wings up and down, forcing me to hold my breath in complete awe. It’s just a few seconds until his clawed digits hit the ground, and he walks toward me with a grace so unique my mouth hangs. “Still silent?”
No answer. Of course. Rays of sunlight crisscross the interior of the cage, causing not only the golden bars to gleam, but his very skin. Unaware of those details, his eyes are still focused on me. “Interested? Come closer, I won’t bite.” I show him my open palm as a sign of reassurance. “I’m not a wolf, I swear.”
He gets closer, and raises one arm, part of the cloth he wraps around his body as a rudimentary tunic rolling down and baring a shoulder.
“I guess it’s fair to say you did not hang those horns there.” My smile causes even more tension, and his gilded arm stops before getting there. “You can touch it,” I assure him, grasping his weak wrist with a much rougher hand. The bird gasps.
First, he touches the tip of my horns, using his wings to float above the line of my head. Our height difference is greatly increased by the pair, and he is unable to reach the 23 centimeters without flying. His fingertips can barely feel the dark keratin, finding it hard to hold them with those long, pointy nails. Then, he uses the lateral of his right hand to follow the lyre-shape, squeezing the ridges to check the rigidity.
“Most of it is bone, connected directly to my skull,” I explain, seeing how fascinated he is by one of our most obvious discrepancies. “The rest is a type of gemstone that grows naturally from our bodies. Mine, specifically, is very much like melanite.”
Although he is quite obviously interested, as he caresses and follows lines, and looks at me when I speak, he is silent again. I take him back to the ground by a strong pull of his arm, forcing him to look at me. “Did you know any of that?”
This time, my bird shakes his head no. Surprisingly, he looks more titillated than he looks scared. That’s progress. “If you kill me, you might even sell them to get your way back home.” My suggestion tickles him in the right place, and he holds the bars close to where I am standing. I feel his yellow orbs analyzing my entire being, towering over him: my neck-long hair slicked back, my v-shaped hairline, the shadow of my stubble. My eyes, as black as my horns, nails, and hair, minuscule and deep. My olive skin, crumpled by slight lines. My arched eyebrows, always too close to my eyelids. My quadratic jaw, the broken look of my nose, my straight lips.
Then, I smile.
“Problem is, you’d have to get past me first. And out of this cage.”
Most birds have a nasty, aggressive tendency when caged, but he is not most birds. It isn’t the first time I’ve encountered problems taming one of his kind, either. Truth be told, all of them have agreed to singing for me quite quickly, as they are extremely loud when angry, since their issue is not with singing for others, or even turning into part of my private collection. They are not afraid of death, or of having their music turned into a profession, but they are intensely contrary to the idea of cages.
For that reason, I am not fond of keeping living birds at home. I have smaller cages for quick procedures, but my collection is very much post mortem. Avian illustrations, fictional and non-fictional books about birds, quills, mythical and historical manuscripts, feathers of all types, printing of claws, clothing, and objects, pieces of nails and claws … The list is long, but my most prized possessions are the wings, since it is all done by me–finding, hunting, cataloging, studying, and the taxidermy work and techniques.
Although I find them exquisite, I have no interest in stressing living ones, and no beauty has been capable of blinding me to their suffering in locked places. Yet this bird is different. I move him to my personal greenhouse, and he seems very content in his new confinement. It’s as big as a single house, tall enough for him to fly and exercise, with so many trees a distracted stranger could confuse it with a botanical garden. We only see bird architecture in drawings that show pieces of colorful domes appearing in treetops, branch-like beams, swings, decorative embellishments, leaf and tendril motifs, curvaceous buildings, stained glass … Like the rest of my house, the greenhouse replicates their constructions.
The only difference are some personal utilities, like the spiral stairway and a table for two on the ground. I enter with a food cart with silver platters and crystal and porcelain dinnerware. My bird watches me from one of the trees as I set the table for both of us.
“Come lunch with me!” I yell, and I can hear a vague echo from the interior. The ceiling is made of glass, and the exterior light illuminates everything in a peculiar way. I laugh in appreciation when I see him fly to me, taking a small moment to touch my horns again before he lands on the ground. I pull the chair out for him and start showing him the food. A tender filet for me, and several fruits for him. “You don’t eat meat, right? I wasn’t too sure which fruit you’d like best, so I asked my servants to bring as many as they could find.”
My bird looks surprised at the variety, and his long fingers start exploring the vessels. He waves his head positively, the reddish-brown ringlets brushing over shoulders and bare chest. The feast apparently puts his guard down.
“I have no idea what those are.” I don’t lie. Their gastronomical preferences are far different from ours, and my knowledge is merely academic, so I know names, but not tastes. Aguacate cream, a boat with honey as golden as him, pineapple with lemon zest, mango juice, sliced guava paste, all in front of him. Now, he smiles, probably amused at my ignorance. “What’s that?”
Another smile. I can see part of his teeth, sharper than I expected. Not as much as a threat as the fangs of a canine, but enough to cause some harm. To answer my question, he picks a slice of guava paste and covers it with one of white cheese, handling it to me.
“Eh?” I ask, the scarlet candy right in front of my nose, and the goat cheese doesn’t look like the best mix to it. “That’s very strange. I thought they were supposed to be eaten apart. Well, I won’t judge you.”
His hand is still waiting for me to take a bite.
The flavor is nothing like meat or spices, but it’s not bad at all, I must admit. I chew and swallow, looking at the ceiling of the greenhouse with a thoughtful look. When he sees the food has descended my throat by the movement of the lump in my neck, he tries another one. Now, it’s honey he collected with two fingers, reminding me of another fact I should have been aware of: unlike us, they eat with their hands, and not with the fork, knife and spoon I prepared for him. “Honey? No, no, I don’t think I can eat that …”
The viscous substance produced by the bees that cohabit their trees looks disgusting to my unprepared sight. My palate has been trained for salt and ground pepper, for paprika and saffron, garlic and cloves. The sweetness takes me by surprise and unfamiliarity, and my whole face contorts in discomfort, making him laugh. Like that, I have a brief preview of his voice, a breath that was a little louder than the usual, and the muffled musicality I was expecting. My beard has honey in it, and I bite his sticky finger, making him laugh even more.
“This is the oddest thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.”
And now I am sure he understands, because he rolls a small, orange-ish fruit to my plate. The thing is round and has ridges, and its deep green leaves smell good.
“Is this a pitanga?” I ask, before putting the fruit in my mouth. He laughs again at the face I make when I discover not all fruits are sweet, since this one is sour. “Very funny.”
They must have plenty of water up there to clean themselves, if they all eat like this. I clean my own mouth with a cloth napkin. “Since you’re feeling better now, do you think you can sing for me?”
What an appalling idea. He is not angry, but he smiles, takes another slice of guava, and flies back to the tree, with no vocal answer.
This is an improvement: we are getting along much better! Not only is the bird used to my presence, but we can have perfectly agreeable times with each other.
In fact, I found myself postponing his imminent execution for my own amusement–I even gave him a name! We eat together every day at lunch, and at dinner I give him privacy to do as he wishes. He accepts simple questions, moving his head accordingly for yes, no, or maybe. I have learned a few things this way: he lived alone before being captured, which explains his unusual behavior, he had no name before the one I invented, and he, as expected, understands everything I’m saying.
“Yíra,” I call, and he already responds well to this name. It fits just fine, being the word for honey in the main language of his people. They don’t have a concept for yellow, or gold: all they relate to the color is yíra.
Solitude has made him productive. Yíra is sitting on a thick, lower branch, one leg down in the air, moving only lightly, the other folded close to his chest, while he braids leaves to create a basket. He looks at me when I enter the greenhouse, and the very low humming sound I thought I heard when crossing the entrance is gone.
“Do you have fun with that?”
Maybe. He shows the result of the half-made basket, and I’m impressed to see how crafty it looks, although primitive if compared to the ones more sociable birds create. “Can I see it?”
Yíra throws the basket at me, more specifically, against the top of my head.
“Don’t be a savage.” The coconut palm leaves he used shine greener in the unfinished basket, and I caress the texture briefly, before raising the object to the air.
Incredibly, he doesn’t even need to fly. Yíra only jumps, and falls standing in front of me, even though the height could have crushed his legs. Avian feet are prepared for such feats, unlike my biology’s plantigrade locomotion.
“How creative can you people get with coconuts? So far, I’m aware of coconut water, oil, cream, food … Talking about food, a good friend of mine has lent me his cook–a sweet, tiny thing with very delicate hands, I’m sure you will like it … Anyway, I digress. I mentioned you’re very fond of this, and she prepared those I-don’t-know-the-names for you.”
Yíra accompanies me as I open a different type of basket the cook gave me when she was done, made of dark wicker with a round handle, and a cotton drape inside. The confectionery has a rustic feel to it, and comes in two different colors, each made with either white or brown sugar added to the long coconut curls. I have no idea what it tastes like, but his eyes widen when he feels the sweet, burnt smell.
“Is it good?”
A very excited yes, it seems. As Yíra delights himself with the treat, I analyze the environment again. I was able to construct an artificial lake for his hygiene needs, and provide the material he might need to feed, clean, and sustain himself. It would be a good vivarium, if I had the heart to keep one, but I’m afraid I can’t, with the single exception of this one.
To enter the tropical confinement, I have to get rid of my cape and riding boots in the entrance, keep the leather gloves inside of my pockets, and I pull open the upper part of my black robes. Makes me hate the clothing layers and colors I’m used to wearing, as my kind is fond of darker tones of black and wine, and the fabric is too thick for the pressure of humidity. Yíra is comfortable with simple tunics of different colors, that are more like loose cloth wrapped around him than anything, and I can understand why.
“Have you seen any of those?” I show him a page of one of my favorite tomes of The Complete Encyclopedia of Zooanthrology: Alários, Birds and Avian Anatomy, pointing to one of the scientific illustrations with my index finger. He is distracted looking at my short nails, touching the square shape with his claw, and comparing its charcoal color to my horns. Then, he focuses on the drawing, and nods.
“But did you talk to them?”
“What about those?” I ask, and the negative is not surprising. He has only seen birds of the highest trees, not middle, nor low, and has only seen them from above. “If you haven’t talked to them, how can you understand me? You learned to talk somehow, am I correct?”
“But how? Did someone teach you?” This one is out of limits, it seems, because he just looks at me with blank eyes. Sometimes, I too get distracted by his captivating beauty, and I stop talking, as he waits for me to keep asking, analyzing this spectacle of nature over and over again.
Taken by the sight, I hold a thick amount of hair, and kiss it. Red, blonde, and brown ringlets cascade between my fingers, and the coarse texture scratches my beard. Yíra watches, silent, and then I remember my position, and let him go.
“I apologize, that was out of place.”
I expect a negative reaction, but Yíra’s eyelids droop, his wings flip, his fingers play with the fabric of his clothes, smashing them against the thighs. He is all golden except for his lips, plump, red, and waiting, or at least, that’s what my mind tries to believe. My knuckles brush against the soft flesh, pulling the upper lip up a bit just to see his teeth and their vaguely threatening form. Yíra closes his eyes, and something is changing.
Whether it is changing inside me or him, I can’t be sure–his mouth swallows my fingers, his raised jaw exposes his neck, my free hand clasps his hip.
“Yíra,” I say, hauling him to my lap. “Tell me to stop.”
He doesn’t seem to want to. I bite the corner of his lip, licking the sugary coconut off his skin.
“Yíra,” I utter, repetitive, and place my hands to guide his movements. Never in my life did I expect my interest to be more than in the academic or aesthetic aspect of my collection, but the craving for another species is familiar to me. I have taken others before–not birds–and have known very few people who have not tried, to say the least. The concept is not taboo, and yet I wasn’t expecting it.
Yíra, I was going to say again, but my voice disappears when I hear his. His moans are as loud as they are musical, and his body goes up and down, wings gliding and shimmering. I can’t believe I’m hearing you sing is what I want to say, but I’m speechless and bewitched.
I continue, and Yíra keeps singing.
“Yíra,” I say. “Do you want to leave?”
His yellow eyes are usually short in height and large in width, as if the sides had been drawn by a brush to make them look longer, but they turn wide, shrinking and enlarging the irises. We were lying on the floor of the greenhouse, but after my question, he gets up, and I do the same. His golden wings are open as well, raised in the air. Yíra could easily shake them off and fly to one of the trees I can’t reach, ignoring my question like he already has plenty of times. He doesn’t.
Instead, he stays frozen in the same position, causing my natural impatience to grow bigger.
“Yíra,” I repeat, now harsher. “It’s a simple question.” His feathers are ruffled. Perhaps in aggressive ignorance, I end up slapping his left cheek. Yíra’s head tilts with the impact, and his skin turns red. My thumb caresses the bruise, but he bites my hand in return. “I’m giving you free will, you stupid bird!”
Where did the idea of setting him free even come from? Never in my life have I imagined letting such a specimen go without a fight, especially considering how rare this creature in front of my eyes certainly is. The words cross my chapped lips without my consent or consideration, and he stares at me in disbelief. The shape of my hand adorns his face like makeup, and once again my body has a life I cannot control.
I pull him by the hair, wrapping the curls around my wrist and guiding him to the exit. Yíra complains with groans low enough to keep his voice controlled, but it stills sounds like vague music to my ears. My hand shakes as I pick up the key made of actual gold, and I force him out of the greenhouse back to the external grounds of my properties. Outside, the day is fresh and bright, the sky is empty for him to fly, and the only thing that keeps him close is my grasp.
My body is filled by what feels like regret, and the weight of having stolen freedom away from this rare being. Despite my vile actions, I cannot face him, so I look away, to the greenhouse, to the stained glass, to the plants. One by one, my fingers let his hair go, and the purple mark of his bite is visible in the corner of my wrist.
Go quickly, I think, still feeling the smell of the papaya he ate. I close my eyes, forgetting my age. My bare feet are covered by grass, and ants walk through them, tickling my toes. Is it over, now? I wonder, as my sleeves flow with the strong wind.
When I open them again, Yíra is still there. Not scared, not angry, but on the ground. Kneeling, his back is curved toward me, palms up and hair scattered on the grass. “Yíra,” I call his name again. “You can go.”
A melodic growling is his response, defiant even facing the lawn.
“Yíra,” I bring him to his senses, wondering why he still doesn’t say a word. When I try to make him stand up, I realize he is doing the old avian trick of weak legs, a way of resisting movement and getting what they want. Snorting, I pick him up, carrying him back to the greenhouse.
“I will not do any harm against you.” I continue talking, and he feels like a corpse over my shoulder. “You don’t need to be afraid. I will give you anything you need to leave, and even more. I am giving you the key right now, so you can leave any time you wish.”
The entrance is embellished with beautiful metal ornaments in the shape of birds, and I stop right there before crossing the arc of the door. I raise Yíra in the air with ease, watching him flap his wings once again, his skin smelling like ripe fruit, his disheveled hair covering his beautiful face. He grasps the upper parts of my arms, and the claws of his feet cling to my clothing.
“Don’t make this harder than it already is,” I murmur, and imagine how glorious it would be to hear him sing for the last time. “I am not a good man, insisting will change my mind …”
His arms choke my neck, his hair covers my eyes, his legs and wings hug me. I feel a kiss, a soft touch at the base of my horns, claws digging my back, another slow peck. And then a low song, first a shaky humming, then whistling, and the sound I thought I heard only in a wild fantasy.
Singing, kissing, embracing, his tongue tickling me, my hands squeezing him, I hear him gasp, open lips against my ear: “Keep me.”
Little is known about the life of this anonymous collector. While his work as an ornithologist is recognized worldwide, and his collection of wings, feathers, and illustrations of alários of the most varied subspecies have been donated to museums after his death, he left very few clues about his personal affairs. For more information, see the book Musings of a Wing Collector: The Anonymous Ornithologist’s Incomplete Journals, published postmortem earlier this year.
H. Pueyo is an Argentine-Brazilian writer, storyboarder, and occasional comic artist. Her work has been published before in English and Portuguese by venues like Bourbon Penn, Secrets of the Goat People, and Revista Trasgo, as well as a couple of others. Find her on Twitter @argiopidae.
Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.
“The Wing Collector” is Copyright 2017 H. Pueyo
Art accompanying story is Copyright 2017 Leigh Legler