An essay by Luisa Sontag, as provided by George Salis
Art by Leigh Legler
“If thy heart were a nest, thou would begat many birds.” –The Purloined Philosophia by Boris of Aventaria
There has been much controversy, even mythology, surrounding the so-called “nidificant manuscript.” A few notables, including the biolinguist Norman Mast, have clamored to call it “an anachronistic masterpiece of scientific literature” (34), suggesting it has been passed down to us from the future, or an alternate past. Many others have deemed the work “a hoax of adolescent caliber” (Mare 25). But by studying the work and delineating its influence on human society, we can say that the truth exists somewhere between fantastic worship and ignorant dismissal. First of all, we know that this some 1,600-page manuscript was composed in the early 19th century by the naturalist, or “supernaturalist,” Erasmus Karl, and details the existence of a species of bird-human that inhabits an archipelago called the Beak-born Islands. A number of its pages include baroque maps of the islands in question, along with illustrations of alien flora and fauna and, most importantly and prominently, the winged beings themselves.
This year marks the 150th anniversary since the first bottle, containing a page of Karl’s manuscript, was discovered, specifically between the pincers of a bleached crab on the coast of Budva, Montenegro. This, the method in which Karl “published” the manuscript, has only added to the idiosyncrasy that has either converted or disgusted relevant experts. Each and every page was rolled into its own bottle and cast into the sea. During the intervening century and a half, around a dozen bottles washed ashore on all countries with a seaside (their contents now published en masse for the first time). The bottles were molded with aid of fire from a translucent shell later identified in the manuscript as a “Clay Conch, a most copious & convenient Resource of Nature.” Ascertaining the location of the archipelago based on the appearance of the bottles has proved to be impossible, and the results obtained by oceanographers inexplicably suggest that the islands are capable of nautical mobility, like a flock, perhaps with occasional murmurations. Because bottled pages are still being discovered almost every month, the nidificant manuscript is most definitely incomplete, its prospective length up for debate. Some have purported that an infinite number of bottles will find their way to land, that they will continue to do so far after human civilization is but dust.
The Wind Calleth: A Brief Biography of Erasmus Karl
Before I begin my exploration of the manuscript and its influence on human society, I find it necessary to relate what is known of Erasmus Karl’s life. Born in the Netherlands circa 1770, his mother was appalled at newborn baby Karl’s full head of white feathery hair, his thin, elongated body, and the downy web between his taloned fingertips. She blamed the sins of the unknown father, while others whispered that Karl’s appearance was the byproduct of a professionally prurient mother. Regardless of their origin, the unfortunate mutations condemned Karl as an outcast, something to be shooed, ogled, or at best tolerated. It wasn’t long until young Karl despised his reflection, taking extreme measures to change it, as is written in his unpublished journals. First he shorn his hair, which highlighted his teardrop-shaped skull, then he filed his fingernails, sometimes with such desperation that he exposed and bloodied the nail beds, and finally he searched for a type of glove that could hide the finger webbings. Deeming the search futile, he excised the vein-thin skin as if it were the film on a Dutch custard. He bled profusely the first time, but afterward it was merely a matter of maintaining the V-shaped scabs.
Aside from his repelling physical characteristics, Karl was a relatively normal and healthy young boy, until, later in school, he became obsessed with nests, spurred by one he had witnessed being constructed outside his bedroom window. He was amazed to see it built with not just twigs and leaves, but clothespins, apple slices, strands of a stranger’s hair, the string from a cup-and-ball, and other miscellaneous objects. The peculiarity of it inspired him to craft his own nests, which he planted, waiting for random birds to make them home. Impatient, he began to track down authentic nests in trees and the nooks of buildings and replace them with his synthetic ones. Some of his nests resembled the real thing, while others were of odd shapes, pyramids and Klein bottles, or made from strange materials, such as quasicrystals and gaseous gelatins. He was compelled to record the birds’ reactions to their new homes. Some of them simply moved elsewhere, while others were driven to infanticide, either eating their younglings or dashing their unhatched shells against rocks. He was further horrified to discover that sphere-shaped nests of chlorophyll caused the birds’ wings to deteriorate into stubs but was later pleased to determine that alabaster dodecahedrons produced birds with wingspans up to five feet. Other nests also seemed to have a positive effect, causing the inhabitants to sing more beautifully, to love their chirping chicks more so than ever before.
Being neglected by his mother, and without a father, the young Karl couldn’t help but wonder why humans didn’t live in similar nests of compassion, and through some such lines of logic he extrapolated that certain humans do live in those nests, bird-humans that exist in isolation from the rest of the world, on top of a mountain higher than Olympus, or on an island better concealed than Atlantis. Thereafter, he dedicated his time to further study of all birds while simultaneously looking for clues as to the whereabouts of the theoretical bird-humans, whom he soon thought of as his vanished ancestors.
Hence the term “nidificant manuscript,” the adjective coming from the Latin nīdificāre, meaning “to nest” or “to build a nest,” the impetus of his life’s work. There is an irony here, in which the curse is also the gift, or vice versa. This is embodied most of all in events that occurred in the final years of Karl’s formal education. Bullying became a constant impediment to Karl’s mental stability. When required to change into athletic wear, the other boys gagged at Karl’s mangled hands, smacked him on his goose-pimpled scalp, and poked him between his peninsular ribs. They spread rumors, asserting that his mother never carried him in her belly, but incubated a yellow-spotted egg for nine months, after having performed coitus with a chicken. Enveloped in that negative atmosphere, an incident brewed. Some said Karl wanted to defy the rumors, transcend them, while others said he wanted to reinforce them, integrate them as a form of truth. Whatever his beliefs or intentions at the time, he found himself standing at the edge of the school building’s roof and, after yelling something, he jumped off, falling two stories as he flapped his phalanges. The webbing between his fingers had been regrown, which suggests experiment on Karl’s part, yet a few witnesses reported that he was thrown off by a group of bullies and had no desire to fly. After being carried on a stretcher to the hospital, he was diagnosed with a broken hip and a slight fracture of the femur. During his bedridden months following an operation, he would repeat the following phrase, sometimes in a slow whisper, other times so loudly and quickly it sounded less like words and more like squawking: “The Wind calleth!” “The Wind calleth!” Such is also what he presumably shouted before his failed “experiment.” One of the nurses claimed that when she put an ear to his bedroom door during those more boisterous moments of layered chanting, the birds outside his window squawked in response, initiating conversations that ceased the second she knocked.
It is thought that those cross-species conversations provided the first clues Karl needed to find the bird-humans (whom he subsequently labeled Homo sapiens avis: “wise bird man”). Not much is known of his life after he recovered from his fall. He did drop out of school in favor of more private research, and afterward his mother formally disowned him, wanting to distance herself as much as possible from his reputation for eccentric and anti-social behavior. He was rarely seen outside the wooden dome he built for himself at the edge of the forest. The few papers he attempted to publish in those early years are lost. We know only the title of one as it appeared in a letter of rejection: “The Nidus & the Fowl: Mutations of Mind & Body by way of Avian Architecture.” A decade later, in 1801, Karl’s “nest” was noticed as dilapidated by curious locals, who peered inside to find a mass of miasmic ingredients and piles of hastily scribbled notes, some of which might have contained proto-maps. Tucked in the walls of the nest as if part of the very structure were items pilfered or “recycled,” such as human hair, newspapers, jewelry, and a pair of dirty women’s underwear. There was no sign of Karl himself. Astounded and infuriated, the locals thought the nest a bastion of black magic and quickly burned it. They also assumed that the witchery had consumed the practitioner, that a cacodaemon snatched Karl from his bed at night. In truth, once Karl’s preliminary research was completed, he left for the Beak-born Islands, an archipelago consisting of four large islands and some thirteen islets. Viewed from above, they vaguely form the shape of a bird’s beak.
It is a mystery as to how Karl made it to the Beak-born Islands, though some allege that for part of his journey, he sailed with the crew of an unnamed British schooner, where he learned English. Whether true or not, it is generally believed that he never left the archipelago. As I will explain in detail later, the Beak-born Islands were his one true home, his “rapturous Nest” (47). Reinforcing the settlement theory, Karl became proficient in their immensely difficult language: “Subsequently bonding with these avian Beings as though I too were bless’d with Wings, I learn’d Their Language, a coalescence of shrill & protract’d Clicks, but with myriad Quavers & what can only be describ’d as Loops & Spirals, tallying a Complexity unheard of in any contemporary Language. Aye, One could only do these Beings Justness by chronicling Them in Their own sacr’d Tongue” (vi-vii). Which explains why some of the manuscript’s pages include cryptographic ink marks consisting of curlicues, crests and troughs, and hypnotic helixes. Translators have yet to decipher them. But, as we will see, even though we can read a majority of the manuscript, it still births many more questions than it answers.
Begetting Many Birds: The Winged Beings and their Influence on Human Society
Some of the questions that the manuscript creates are due to the nature of history, others the nature of science. Yet most, perhaps, are the product of the nature of Nature. For example, it remains to be determined as to why, throughout the manuscript, we are given numerous descriptions and illustrations of the beings’ wings, all of which contradict each other: “The foremost Magnetism of Their pseudo-primitive Rituals were indubitably the arcing Wings, resplendent with feather’d Colors the like of which no Man has ever laid Eyes upon” (261), “& when They alight on the sheer Tips of Their two-digit’d Feet They fold Their iridescent, scaly Wings & seem well-nigh Human, for as cumbersome as the Appendages may appear, they are afford’d the Ability to retract into two large vertical sun-on-the-horizon-shap’d cavities in the Back, flanking the spik’d Spine” (333-334), “To my Dismay, some of Them Drown’d in the Waters betwixt Land–in what could only be christen’d as Rivulets in contrast to the mighty Ocean that enclos’d Them, isolat’d them from all Civilizations. Such Calamities were ow’d to the tuft-laden Nubs which were so infantile in Structure, though mature in their Growth. These superficially suppress’d Extremities only permitt’d Them to drift diminutive Distances, to fleetingly hover forward” (455-456), and “In Stretches of Jubilation They were beheld to fly as high as the Sun itself, encircl’d in the Incandescence, Their Wings the extent of a mythological Bird, fleck’d with fiery Eyes” (999).
In the context of these quotations, evolution is neither discussed nor acknowledged, and we are led to believe that every being possessed every type of wing, although not exactly simultaneously. One colleague of mine conjectured that time in this archipelago is not like we know it, that the experience of time is disjointed, perhaps utterly capricious. Even physicists are uncertain as to whether our Laws are universal in the ultimate meaning of the word. If this hypothesis of chaotic time is true, then Karl observed the evolution of wings in a relatively brief period but processed the gradualism as a stasis. This evolution must have been guided heavily by the development of their nests’ structure, descriptions of which also suffer from contradiction: “Their Nests, which grac’d the tops of decapitat’d Trees, were hierarchical, bas’d upon the breadth & altitude of said Trees, with the Dimensions of the Throne Nest rivaling the almightiest Redwood” (200), “Evoking the Greek Phoenix, They slumber’d in domestic Groupings within grandiose Campfires, roosting upon the heat’d Coals in Symbiosis, for those Coals were the Backs of Combustible Crabs, who were also commission’d in Spells of Conflict” (606), and “Never had I beheld such gargantuan Leaves, affix’d to such slender Stalks. Sounder than Diamond, the wing’d Beings carv’d Spears from them. I was further mystifi’d when I hearken’d to how Winds, lac’d with twilit Sea Salt, caus’d the bamboo Trunks to knell, soaping the Air with soporific if inhuman Mantras. More like Flies than Birds, They made Homes of the Leaves’ Undersides, adhering with a viscous Substance that secret’d from both Palms & Soles” (1,122-1,123). For this reason, and others previously mentioned, chronology in the manuscript as a whole is defied. What the reader sees published is but one construction of many possibilities, a snapshot of the flock in flight, as it were.
Of course, another question is: Why did the bird-humans–if capable of flight, depending on the type of wing they possessed at a given time–remain only on the Beak-born Islands? Why did they not migrate to other lands, make contact with human civilization? According to Karl:
Their Religion bequeath’d to Them the Knowledge that Nothing exist’d beyond Their Islands & Sprinkle of Islets. As such, They believ’d I arriv’d from either Above or Below. I was either Mole or Swallow. Devil or Angel, if you will. To divine my Color They subject’d me to a Trial. They serv’d me a Bowl of Their own gourmet Delicacy, White Worms, which I willingly ate out of Respect, & dare conclude their Flavor was akin to spic’d Raisins. Such a Worm, I later learn’d, is pestilential to the Mole Stomach. Afterward, They slic’d my Palm with a Clay Conch Blade, taking turns at tasting my Blood. They seem’d repuls’d at first, Their Owl Eyes flaring more so, Their Heads revolving 180 Degrees & back again, but it must have been the Rush of the Aftertaste that made Them Hoot with Hedonism. ‘Uh-Uh-Above!’ (8-9)
Aside from Karl, there is the possibility that contact between humans and the winged strangers occurred again, although much later, and in the unlikeliest of locales. One might say, in heaven. (An earlier and quite different encounter, one of both confrontation and conviviality, will be mentioned later.) To understand, we must learn more from Karl about their beliefs and intentions:
As much as They play’d & pierc’d the Clouds from within, Their Kind had more than mere nubivagant Tendencies. Rather, They worshipp’d the Stars, longing to fly amongst them, to fertilize the scintillating Surfaces like a Bee upon the Flower, for Their Conception of those distant Dots of Light was akin to an infinite Meadow in which the Center of Flowers coruscat’d o’er altitudinous Realms, and thus beckon’d, perchance even taunt’d, the Beings to Pinnacles anew. Legend had it, One of Their Populace did indeed sunder the Surface of the Sky & found Herself floating among the Stellar Flowers. Her Constellation, eponymously nam’d ¡Khoro, is delineat’d by Seven Stars, One of which is Man’s Northern, thus She was subsum’d within that Meadow of the Cosmos. Other Acolytes were martyr’d but not beatifi’d in the same Manner. Flapping through the Spheres of the Sky, They would succumb to the Wintriness & fall back as icy Gargoyles, shattering upon an Island or buoying in the Sea ’til They liquefi’d into crystal-ridden Spume. Naturally, They mourn’d Their Dead & would orchestrate aerial Funerals, prancing & pirouetting at such a colossal Elevation that They resembl’d Motes in a Glass of Water. Using Clay Conches or other sundry Materials, grieving Mothers would jar a modest Portion of the Sea a Day after a frozen Martyr fell into it, Their equivalent of Ashes in an Urn. (78-79)
The winged beings’ propensity for spacefaring might explain the “vision” astronaut J.P. Torring claimed to have witnessed while on the moon for Apollo 14. Ridiculed and disbelieved by friends, family, and most of the public, Torring explained what he saw in an interview, “I’d call it, you know, like one of those damned harpies. Something, you know … something your parents might scare the bejesus out of you with to make you behave. A damned big closet monster with … with tiger claws, chicken feet, you know, and wings made of alloy or something. It looked part machine as much as poultry. But with, oh gosh … with a human face” (39). According to Torring, the bird-human stared him down with equal parts fear and curiosity, before beating its wings in a storm of moon dust and heading for the stars. Unfortunately, Torring’s fellow astronauts did not corroborate his story. For a period after that infamous interview, people across the U.S. and some abroad claimed to have been bound in their beds, gagged with silver powder, and sat on by chromium angels, although such claims of abduction or visitation are dismissed by skeptics as frauds and delusions. Amateur astronomers also interpreted at that time certain spectral data as vast fleets of them soaring between galaxies in the formation of a luminous arrowhead a thousand earths wide, but this scientific conclusion is controversial (Krasznahorkai 24-59).
Controversy seems inseparable from any notion of the bird-humans, however distant in relation or idea, as with their method of copulation. Karl explains that sexual intercourse was never a taboo in that isolated society. Rather, they indulged quite often in a variety of positions, many familiar, if not shunned or banned, by human civilization. Yet only a specific sexual act produced offspring, whereas the rest existed for pleasure’s sake. In no sparse prose does Karl illuminate the bizarre act:
Much like the Red-tail’d Hawk, They would Woo each Other by flying in Circles, Triangles, & Hexagons. The Male & Female both would dive steeply & rise steeply. O, Gloriousness! Then, when the Volition struck at the Center of Their Souls, They would hold feather’d Hands, entangle Talon’d Feet, & dive in a Blur of phantasmal Colors, pecking each Other’s Cheeks & Beaks with love-saturat’d Smeerkins. But, O Foulness!, not all Unions end’d in unanimous Life. If, perchance, They become too enraptur’d in Rapture to perceive impending Ground, such Soul-dives on Occasion result’d in a bespatter’d Death for the Lovers. Yet, O Propitiousness!, an inseminat’d Egg would still hatch & rise as a human Phoenix, not from the Ashes, but from the Gore of the Hatchling’s Progenitors, Born an Orphan. These strange & estrang’d Offspring, who possess’d a crimson Complexion, were treat’d as Lepers by the rest of Their Kith & Kin, forc’d to fend for Themselves or form minuscule Factions with a more savagely-inclin’d Temperament, enduring on the Edges of Islets. Contrariwise, a Child born from a Soul-dive which end’d with a Plunge in the Ocean would be a Child Born to different & deeper Doom. Though lungless at the Moment of Conception, come Accouchement its Lungs would be chock-full of Seawater. O, ill-fat’d! A Child born Drown’d. (171)
Somehow, this way of lovemaking has thrice seeped into human society in the form of controversy as much as tragedy. An obscure French filmmaker named Absolon Dubois, who begrudged and attempted to compete with Georges Méliès, can be credited with making one of the first pornographic films. Yet it wasn’t his intention to be lewd. Rather, he thought the film a “testament to pure science,” and based the premise on what he deemed, without elaboration, a “divine source material” (Oro 10). Titled In the Sky of the Tesseractyles, it was shown at the brink of a millennium in 1898 to an elite audience of intellectuals. The actors in the film, devoid of clothes, hang upside down by well-concealed wires. With a vertical scrolling sky of painted clouds in the background, the pairs thrust in and out of each other as a wind-machine from below blows their hair and wings about. Some of the pairs screech sweet nothings to their mates in the form of clicks and whoops that a linguist in the audience later called “ethereal Morse code, as mesmerizing as it is unintelligible” (18). Starting with cirrus and continuing through stratus, the green-brushed ground finally appears, but rather than creating nests of gore, a substitution splice allows the death-diving bird-humans to disappear in a plume of blue-stained smoke. The scene then transitions to a close-up of a golden egg branded with sacred geometry. A time-lapse of the hatching reveals a newborn baby boy with an albatross’ beak for a mouth. There the film ends. Many praised the uncanny wings of the actors, which were made of glass and contained a representation of four dimensions or higher, a tesseract in wing form. One viewer, a distinguished physicist, said the “wings have more than a life of their own, they have the Cosmos in their curvature” (18). A paleontologist, who sat in the back and scrutinized the film with the aid of a monocle, was stuck on what he called the “terrible pterodactyl pun. These humanoid birds are anything but similar to my winged reptiles,” although he later admitted that “the film has penetrated my dreams in ways that the bones of prehistoric monsters never could” (19). Almost a year later, Dubois was found dead in his home, any sign of foul play absent on his body, but with the incinerated work of a sequel four feet from his outstretched hand. Méliès was interrogated by the police but presented a viable alibi, leaving the circumstances of Dubois’ death forever ambiguous, his cinematic potential snuffed.
Upon rediscovery, Absolon Dubois’ In the Sky of the Tesseractyles was shown in 1930 on a week-long loop at a gallery of cinema in lower Manhattan. Perhaps inspired by the film, a rash of romantic suicide pacts occurred, wherein nude couples tipped themselves over a steel rib of the Empire State Building’s embryonic skeleton, tumbling while linked at the loins. Later, the same style of self-slaughter transpired on September 11, 2001, in which co-working lovers undressed themselves, embraced each other, and dove from the tower into funnels of fire-flaked smoke, their intertwined bodies an expression of life and love against the presence of cult-inspired death. While writing this paper, a colleague brought to my attention a missing page of the Kama Sutra, recently discovered, that describes the “upside-down lovers, suspended in wind,” whose sexual organs were secondary to the “tumescent wings of their hollow spines” (69). Love between souls, claims the text, is fully realized in this mystical position, during which “all else dissolves” (70).
Yet for all the influences from the society of bird-humans that I have noted, the most clandestine and far-reaching is found in Charles Darwin’s seminal work. Readers might find the following quote familiar: “There is Grandeur in this Way of Life, with its avian Powers, having been originally breath’d into a few Forms or into One; & that, whilst this Planet has ignorantly gone cycling on according to the fix’d Laws that Man knows, from so simple & hidden a Beginning endless Wings most beautiful & most wonderful have been, & are being, Evolv’d” (1,631). This is the final paragraph of, not On the Origin of Species, but the published arrangement of Karl’s manuscript (and the only time Karl mentions evolution, which suggests that he may have adapted to the islands’ nature of chaotic time, in mind as well as body, a phenomenon described later). A paragraph which Darwin, were he still alive, would have to answer to. That is, if the similarity were to be taken at face value. Far from plagiarism, a different story is told in Karl’s manuscript:
Due to the Essence of the Beak-born Islands, I am certain that if a Man had discover’d Them, he must in some Capacity be Pure of Mind & Heart. However, as in the Mythologies of bygone Civilizations, there exists Techniques to sneak into Utopia. Thus, when an Eagle-ey’d Sentinel station’d at One of the Wind Towers first spi’d the Beagle on the Skyline, He warn’d the Fowl Lord, who then command’d His Flock to assume the long-practic’d Formations, encloaking Themselves in Their chameleon Wings, proficiently camouflag’d with the Texture of Stones. While many masquerad’d Themselves as the inanimate Landscape, Others imbib’d shamanic Potions which shape-shift’d Them into Mockingbirds, Giant Tortoises, & most disgusting, clumsy Lizards. When the Man who identifi’d himself as Darwin came ashore, I was strangely unsurpris’d to find that he resembl’d me, minus the avian Mutations that I have long since embrac’d. But his Familiarity inspir’d in me further Distrust, & I could sense the living Rocks beating as dispers’d Clumps of my own Heart. (807-808)
At that point, Karl’s wariness of strangers is the product of a mother’s affinity for her children’s welfare, and so he decides to “destroy Darwin & the Others, burning their Bodies in the Ship from whence they issu’d” (809).
However, Karl is not a murderer, and his adopted kinsfolk are not readily prone to violence either. The foreigners make camp with Karl and eat the combustible crabs they catch near the rock-bird-humans. As Karl relates, “Miraculously, the Crabs did not detonate in their Mouths, which germinat’d in me the Judgement that Men dampen the Magick of Existence, & that those living Rocks were not living after all, but as Dead as those in the dreary Village I hail’d from” (810). Even with this awareness, Karl befriends Darwin, admiring his “Fascination with the false Fauna.” All is going well when, as night begins to fall,
a rogue Band of Four Gore-borns emerg’d, descending from the Shadows, & stabb’d a few of Darwin’s Companions in an attempt to eradicate the Mole Invad’rs, but ere they could slay Darwin & the rest, the Fowl Lord manifest’d, who, Five Meters in Height, possess’d the full Body of a Condor, the Neck of a Swan, the Head & Face of a Man, & the Eyes of a Hawk. Most Regal was His Hair, which was the Tail of a Peacock, like a Chieftain’s Headdress. They cower’d in His Presence, but, with Resolve, the murderous Rogues swoop’d toward the Fowl Lord, & with a single Wave of His Wing He smote Them all. (823)
Believing the crabmeat to be tainted, all but Darwin board the ship in mortal fear of the hallucination they witnessed. However, Karl allows the inquisitive Darwin a keyhole-shaped glimpse into the islands’ secrets, an inkling of truth patched with excuses and fabrications. It is correct to say that Karl indeed develops a bit of trust toward the fellow naturalist, who later refers to him fondly as a “supernaturalist,” but the potential dangers of full disclosure were too great. Thus, an implicit, although obfuscated, knowledge grows between them, and they continue to correspond long after Darwin’s departure, communicating by way of magnetic bottles, which, when tossed into the sea, could find any shore or ship deck that supported the feet of his friend. Along with messages of a personal nature, Karl divulges just enough information, albeit encoded and amalgamated, to produce Darwin’s great observations and theories, with any inaccuracies the product of a necessary opacity.
Regardless, the momentous visitation of the Beagle helped foster in Karl a festering suspicion, at times a loathing, of human beings, which further complicates not only his relationship with Darwin, but his perception of the outside world as a whole. Tensions, too, increase between the bird-humans and their incarnadine counterparts, who attempt several more coups against the Fowl Lord, all ending in their butchery. On a night when the Fowl Lord assumes that he executed the last of the insurrectionists, claiming to have “clipp’d the wicked Wings of Mutiny,” Karl writes:
With the Facsimile of Flight inevitable in Man’s Progress, my Bird-humans, my Kin, will surely be imperil’d. The dim Shadow of Man is visibly ruffling Their Feathers. Yet They seem prepar’d for It, prophetic in the Belief that They will rise & dive, dive & rise. Half of Their Quantity schemes to construct spherical Nests of Wind & Air with the Scope of Cities, adapting to Life at the nethermost Region of the Sea, Their Wings twisting into stunning Fins. (830)
When contemplating this underwater nation, Karl compares them with the winged fish and mermaids he heard tell of (perhaps aboard the unnamed British schooner). Flying, he thought, was not exclusive to air, but with the right adjustment could occur in any and all elements. Regarding the rest of the population:
They have been tempering Themselves in the Fringes of the Atmosphere, predicting the Chill will crystalize Their Skin into Something Metallurgic, & then They will fly higher, nesting in Craters on the Moon, in Spots on the Sun, & Yonder. These are Dwellings in which Man will eternally be one Step behind, but whose pertinacious Progress will eventually force my Bird-humans to fly-swim ever Downward, ever Upward, ever Onward. (831)
Over the course of his studies, a romance ensues between Karl and a bird-human. This not only convolutes his perceptions further, but might have contributed to the alteration of his existence:
In the Beginning, the Females were prone to a social Snub of my Presence, save for a Female who seem’d Herself an Outcast, although not of the crimson Complexion, not Gore-born. She, my darling ¡Vhinda, spent most of Her Time perch’d in the Trees or transfix’d by the tantalizing Stars, gripping the edge of a cliff on the Island’s south Side so that She may sense both the speckl’d Void above and the wet World below…. Only She had been Audacious enough to lip-peck the nova-shap’d Seeds from my quivery, scarr’d Palm, once even permitting me to Stroke the Top of her felt Wing, reminding me, oddly enough, of a high quality Fez of Turkey that a Man in my Village donn’d. (951-952)
Following this are several chapters in which he worries and envisions the extinction of the winged beings, wondering and dreading if that Turkish headwear he knew of was not indeed manufactured from the wings of his creatures. He describes multiple dreams that are clones of each other, plus or minus minor distinctions:
O, They came to me. They had only me. I would have murder’d whomever committ’d such a demoniacal Deed. My wing’d Family, reduc’d to a dying Crawl. O, They crawl’d, Scores of Them, Their Claws rending the Soil & Sand, edging toward me, the entirety of Them wingless, with twin Geysers of hazel Blood flying forth from Their Backs. O, flying! All that flew was Their Lives, Rivers at a time, Rivers & Rivers of depleting Life. (979)
The dreams were the byproduct of a fever caused by Karl’s metamorphosis. His bones were becoming more hollow, his jutting lips thinner and harder, and his shoulder blades ached with emerging cartilage, which were, like a goat’s horn buds, the beginning of wings. The bird-humans’ consensus was that love acted as the ultimate shamanic potion, or, rather, as an antidote to the anthropological curse. Like a dying man who holds within his head mere scriptural knowledge of paradise, Karl was both fearful of his transformation, at times considering it an illness, and enthralled by it, wondering if he wasn’t passing into a different type of hereafter, a region of divinity populated by appointed avifauna.
Before the initial signs of his change, Karl and ¡Vhinda attempt to copulate, to perform a soul-dive. “She clutch’d my Hands and sent me aflight, leading me in that sidereal Dance, around & around, cradling me as I enter’d Her and we soul-div’d, enwrapp’d in Wind” (1,307). But the resulting child was stillborn, with random body parts belonging to either the anatomy of a bird or a human: “The lower Lip the Bottom of a Beak, the Hair as serpentine Feathers, one shrunken Wing, & a chicken-clubb’d Foot” (1,333). As far as is revealed, they did not try again, even after the completion of his metamorphosis, although they did sometimes fantasize about the fertility of their innards, the incubatory power of their insides if turned outward. Suicide as nativity.
Yet Karl’s heart was indeed a nest, and during his life it begat many symbolic birds, including one in the form of understanding both the overt and clandestine influence of Homo sapiens avis on our society, which we are only just beginning to fathom. Perhaps, camouflaged, they live among us, betrayed by reports of invisible wings bending the light behind politicians’ backs, although this has not been confirmed. Unfortunately, the extent of such overall influences, concrete or abstract, is limited by deleterious effects. The reason for this is DNA’s envy, the irresolvable discrepancy of the winged and the not, which is epitomized in the following: there existed a nameless scientist, perhaps a descendant of Darwin, who, extrapolating from the texts of his keyhole knowledge, attempted to recreate a kind of bird-human. All that remains of his work is crazed, haphazard jottings about the process, and a photograph of what some believe is a patient, others the scientist himself, cowering in the corner with bony wings stitched to an oozing back (Mingles 641-666). In the context of Erasmus Karl’s work, we can view this image as, not irrefutable evidence of the creatures’ existence, but a demonstration of a universal truth within us: we, the wingless beings, envy those with the power of aviation separate from supplementary invention; we long to join in communion with the invisible, omnipresent flock and forever migrate from the woes of terrestrial life, but we cannot.
Boris of Aventaria. The Purloined Philosophia. Medieval Science and Philosophy Series, London, 1991. 56.
In the Sky of the Tesseractyles. Dir. Absolon Dubois. Prod. Javier Macron. 1898.
Karl, Erasmus. The Nidificant Manuscript: The Untold Story of our Winged Relatives. TT Books, New York, 2019.
Kinbote, Darrell. “Man on the Moon Meets Monster?” U.S.A. (Unscrupulous Sources for America). 11.3 (1971): 39.
Krasznahorkai, Timofey. “The Angel Yearning: Deceits and Delusions Regarding Heaven’s Servants.” The Periodical of the Viktor Science Institute for Debunking. 21.9 (1980): 24-59.
Mare, Kate. “The Ineffective Forger: Hoaxes throughout History.” Skeptical Magazine. 40.4 (2011): 25.
Mast, Norman. “To See the Unseeable: Inferences on Alien Knowledge.” The Cosmic Cortex: A Journal of Ancient Biology & Related Disciplines. 20.1 (1989): 34.
Mingles, Jarvis. Again and Again: Failed Experiments Since the Dawn of Science. Axiom Books, London, 2000. 641-666.
Oro, Hal. Word of Mouth: Unofficial Reviews and Criticism of Vintage Films. Shift Publications, New York, 2014. 10, 18-19.
Vātsyāyana. The Complete Kama Sutra. Pearl Editions, London, 2017. 69-70.
 According to Karl, “The tospy-turv’d Exclamation Mark betokens a helical Whistle most conventional in the Bird-humans’ Elocution of formal Addresses.” (3)
Luisa Sontag holds multiple PhDs from a variety of universities. Her wide range of knowledge is reflected in her published work. For example, her essay on time’s golden spiral shape was published in Quark, her research on the gene-popping of rare squids was featured in Subaquatic Studies, and her six-volume history of vanished continents was published by Samurai Books. Up until his death, she was collaborating with Stephen Hawking on a book about theoretical flora and fauna titled A Brief Visit to Neighboring Planets. Dedicated to Hawking, it is scheduled to be published next year.
George Salis is the award-winning author of Sea Above, Sun Below (forthcoming from River Boat Books, 2019). His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, The Sunlight Press, Unreal Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is the editor of The Collidescope and is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on Facebook, Goodreads, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.
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/.
“In Communion with the Invisible Flock: Erasmus Karl and the Nidificant Manuscript” is © 2019 George Salis
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Leigh Legler