Bird Woman Speaks

“I don’t suppose anyone here has ever heard of the Olicanucian Flyinitus,” said the person we knew as Robin. Her obsidian eyes glimmered and flickered with light from fireplace and the few dim bulbs hanging from a timber beams. Outside the wind moaned through the hemlock and tamarack. Wind whipped snow pelted and shook the window panes.

“No, Robi, no,” said Merle. “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 friendly banter of a husband tired of hearing the same old story.

Besides Robin and Merle, there were thirteen of us in the lobby of the Eagle Landing Inn. Except for Robin and Merle, we were all strangers to one another. Highway 20 had been closed, and we each had found ourselves with a choice: a night at Merle’s and Robin’s summer resort or a thirty mile slog back through night and falling snow so thick it would hide a woolly mammoth at a pace and a half. We were tired of driving through torrential snow fall with the wind slapping and skidding our cars across the icy snowpack. So we sat in front of the Eagle Landing Inn’s immense stone fireplace, playing Rummy and eating the grouse stew and soda crackers that Robin had prepared and served to us. We chatted about having never seen a storm like this, about our Christmas plans, about the mundane life we had left or were traveling to.

None of us were completely comfortable. We were among strangers in a strange place. We all had places to be where loved ones waited or waited to be buried or married or just held in our arms. The land line at the Eagle Landing Inn was not functioning. Our cells were “out of service”. And in spite of their hospitality, we sensed a vague dis-ease from Robin and Merle. It perhaps did not help our sense of comfort and ease that hanging in the high log rafters of the lobby from a squeaking chain was a glass eyed, cobwebbed, large plastic replica of a large bird, perhaps an eagle. It was a dim, glinting metalic shape in the high darkness. It swayed over us, pinons out-thrust and turning slowly as if driven by the gravity of the universe.

A few travelers, after expressing their reservations about the primitive amenities of a summer resort in mid winter and slurping a ration of soup and coffee, had chosen to turn around and start the 20-mile-an-hour drudge back to civilization. We never heard of any of them again.

What we heard or did not hear in Merle’s voice when he told his wife that we did not need to here about her visits to the Pleistocene 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 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. As she spoke she paused a white hand occasionally opened the shawl and reached to lift a steaming cup to her lips.

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

“No!” Merle cried. 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, moaning feeblely, “nooo, Robi, no.”

“This is not to say the ancients did not know of it. They did. The bird people told the stories around winter fires. It was their calling to tell these legends, to carry warning to each generation, to put into each child, each youth, every white hair, every hunter the knowledge of the inevitability of the eventual and certain fledgling of Olicanucian Flyinitus. It was their duty to tell of the hunger, the lust for feeding that this beast had. It was a harsh terrible duty, and perhaps it would be better if a boy, a youth went to his fate in ignorance. Perhaps if a mother, a wife, a child, a father did not know what awaited their loved one, the release to their fate would have been simpler, easier. But what do we have words for if we do not use them to warn? And so the bird people have this terrible burden.”

Robin lifted her tea and peered at us over the rim of the cup, her glittering eyes flitting past us one by one. The card game had stopped, one or two of us still held promising hands, but most had laid their cards down. We waited as she slurped her tea. She looked into the shadows of the rafters where the large effigy rotated, its chains squealing and squeaking—a sound not unlike the door opening, though it never stopped. It was unrelenting—and becoming just a might annoying. The wind outside carried howls of the wilderness around around our sanctuary. It whistled and whined past the windows and door. Occasionally one of us would step to a window and see in the frail yard light the mounds of snow that hid our cars. But all of us turned again when the old story-teller spoke again.

“The tellers could not tell when it would come, but only that when it came it was a heavy winged presence that screamed in the night over their lodges. It carried off children who wandered into the night, 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. But this is not what it needed. It sought courage, it lusted for bravery. It is said it would not leave the sky, the winter nights, in peace until it had satiated itself on the blood and bones that came against it carrying courage. And perhaps this is why the story must be told. Perhaps this is why the stories are told, for the courage of innocence is tasteless and so banal. Only a youth facing her fate knowing its absolute takes true courage with her.

“To see the Olicanucian Flyinitus in the full knowledge of what you were seeing was considered courageous, and to tell of seeing it was considered an act of monumental courage. Youths 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 girls.

“And then it would be gone, vanished. Then when its famishment was fulfilled, it would disappear.

“Gone.” The old liar lifted her cup and slurped, then looked absently into it, swirling it lightly.

“Yes,” she said. “It was gone, its ravaging done, its heart beating the blood of so many courageous young.” She lifted her bird-bright black eyes that sparked into the room through the still steaming cup in her hand. She put the cup down and waved the black-winged hand at the effigy on the squeaking chain.”

“But that is not the end of it,” she said. A troubled frown passed over her face. We waited. The storm shook the windows, the glinting bird above us squeaked and turned with the gyre of the universe.

“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 most devout of the bird-people could undo. A curse that hindered all approaches. 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 light and dark rinsing across it under the thorn shadows and the sulfurous steam that rose around it. Generations would pass. The bird people told their warnings 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 had will enough to struggle past the curse, who had the strength and courage to beat 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. 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. “It incubates for eons,” she said. “And then on a midwinter night such as this, perhaps an old woman of the bird people with speak and. . . .”

There was a heavy screech, as if a monumental door was unhinging somewhere above the snowfall. None of us were young men. But a few went 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.”

 “Bird Woman Speaks” first appeared on this blog in March 2018. It is quite a yarn. May you enjoy!

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