Bird Woman Speaks

“I don’t suppose anyone here has ever heard of the Olicanucian Flyinitus,” Robin said. The fireplace light flickered and danced in her small obsidian eyes.

“No, Robie, no,” Merle said. “These folk don’t need to hear your misadventures in the Pleistocene.” He spoke quickly and his voice trembled, and we sensed in his warning more than a friendly admonition, more than the banter of a husband tired of hearing the same old story. A few of us afterward claimed to have heard terror in his voice. But what can you say about what you hear in the the pitch of a voice? And how true do any of us tell the hindsight?

Except for Robin and her husband, Merle, most of us were relative strangers, having arrived at this inn because the highway ahead was closed. We’d been offered a choice: a night at Merle’s and Robin’s summer resort inn or 30 miles back through night and snow fall so thick it would hide a woolly mammoth at a pace and a half. A few had chosen to turn around and begin the 20-mile-an-hour drudge back to civilization. The rest of us were tired of driving though torrential snow fall and so chose the inn. We never heard again of the few who chose otherwise.

What we heard or did not hear in Merle’s voice is neither here nor there. Robin paid it absolutely no heed. She sat in a heavy timber chair, with a dark blue, star embroidered blanket wrapped like an ancient shawl over her shoulders. She fanned herself with the wing of a large bird. Her white-streaked hair framed a brown, time creased face and those bright raven eyes. The firelight glinted on her skin and from her eyes, as if her face were a burnished mask from another time. She spoke.

“The Olicanucian Flyinitus is a brute so ancient even the ancients could not recall it.”

“No!” Merle said. But Robin lifted a brown hand in which she held the black raven wing. She flicked the wing at Merle. Her black eyes pinned him. And he sagged in his chair, only able to say one more feeble, “nooo, Robie, no.”

“This is not to say the ancients did not know of it. They did.

“It would come, a heavy winged presence that screamed in the night over their lodges. It carried off their children, it marauded their pantries. It left mere remnants of their dogs scattered in the yard in front of their lodges. Whole herds were left eviscerated and unfleshed bones on the plains. To see it and to tell of seeing it was considered an act of monumental courage. Young men vied for the opportunity to confront it, to take it and hang it’s talons on their chest, put its feathers in their caps, wear its green and white feathered cape about their shoulders. Many went out into the frosted and dark nights, but few returned and those who did were wrecked boys.

“And then it would be gone, vanished. And the smallest baby that lived at that time would speak of it their entire lives and tremble. But then time would pass and few alive would be able to recall it. Those that did were mad. Baby sitters would tell stories to frighten children, old men would mutter of things they had heard, boys would taunt crows with its name. But it was mostly forgotten.” Here Robin paused, glancing at each of us with her black eyes, pointing with the wing in her hand.

She went on.

“It is said that it left one lustrous egg in a nest hidden and veiled not just by thicket and thorn, but by curses only the bird-people could do or undo. A curse that hindered all people-kind from approach. There it incubated over putrid waters that steamed from the earth. There for eons it lay, gleaming in the shadows of thorns, its heavy blackness shining under the thorn shadows, and then dimming in the sulfurous steam that rose around it. Generations passed. There were stories around the hearths that made youth tremble and yet hope that the time would come when they might seek courage in facing this beast. Many went out to find the nest. Few who found it returned, for the curse was hard, the ground terrible.

“In some generations there was one who could betray the curse, who had the strength and courage to struggle through the thorns and sharp stones, the hellish smell, and who might return. But they came back old men with white hair and stooped shoulders, their steps staggering and uncertain. Their eyes white with the darkness they had seen. They spoke of a night-black sphere with the sparks of stars on it that dimmed and brightened in steam and moonlight. But they were otherwise quite mad.

“And then on a dark mid-winter night when the snow slithered like snakes from the sky, there would be screeching of demons over the lodges. Mothers held their children close, fathers struggled with their sons to keep them in the frail lodge, the only hope. But, of course, young men must go, and so these did. Those few who returned were transformed in a night into white-hairs, with heavy backs, and white eyes.”

There Robin stopped. She shifted the night-blanket tight around her shoulders, the black wing a mere shadow on the cloth. “It incubates for eons in the sulfurous steam of hell’s waters,” she said. “And then on a midwinter night such as this, perhaps, an old woman of the bird people might utter some archaic syllable and. . . .”

There was a heavy screech, as if a monumental door were unhinging somewhere above the snowfall. None of us were young men. But a few rushed to windows. We saw only the slithering down of the snow in the vague light of the one yard light. Then the yard light vanished as if a heavy thing passed between it and us. That screech again that sent us scurrying and scuttering back to the frail safety of the fireplace beside the old woman. And again the screech.

“Well,” Robin said, “I’ll be damned.”

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