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Bird of Wonder

Copyright © 2009 Merrill Mahaffey

[Author's Note: Here is the opening chapter of my earliest attempt to follow a mythical creature. The story later appeared as "Into the Gray" in Jeff VanderMeer's Leviathan, Vol. No. 1 (1996). The painting of the firebird is by Western landscape artist Merrill Mahaffey. I warmly acknowledge both Jeff and Merrill for use of their work.]

Go now, my sweet bird,
show me the road I'll follow.
"Resurrection and Ashes"

Hold out your hand, palm upward. Consider it land. Let your mind’s eye fill the bay between your thumb and forefinger with water of a hazy blue on a morning in midsummer. Speck the blue with a red spritsail of a small pram—a sail rounded with an easy breeze. Come down from beyond floating mountains of cloud. Come down with me (the boat holds two), and sit there on the seat in the middle. Here, take the mainsheet. You may hold the sail.

On that morning, I am lazing, thinking, not sailing anywhere in particular, not having to be anywhere at any certain time.

Ishmael took to the sea as an alternative to cap and ball. Huck headed downriver from the Angel of Death. I took to the lake because I could. Leaning back in the starboard corner of the stern and looking up, I realized it was the first time in months I’d seen the sky. I was ready for escape from the grinding office days, the bombastic headlines, the traffic, the whole sorry world, ready to renew the spirit. I breathed deeply, the body spreading with relaxation.

Thoughts floated in my head like clouds, and as I watched a particular cloud, I saw a sunlit speck emerge from a cave of shadow. I watched the speck grow. Into outspread wings. A hawklike bird floated on the currents of air. Spiraling downward above me, it rocked from side to side, even as the boat rocked upon the water.

I could see the texture of the feathers of the broad wings. The sword-sharp point of the hooked beak glinted with sun. How strange it was that a bird of its kind was in the land of gulls. The bird was looking at me. I didn’t move as my heart filled my chest and pressed up against my throat. The bird hung suspended in the air above me, fixing me with its dark eyes. I breathed quietly.

Suddenly, the bird dropped straight towards me, exploding in size. I was overboard.

Heavy in sneakers, corduroys and shirt, I rose through bubbles, peered up and out at the side of the boat, and saw no bird above me. I reached up, grasped onto the side, my legs hanging down like weights. No bird stood inside where I had sat. The loose boom moved with the limp sail as the boat rocked. Then I twitched. Perched on the top of the mast, its talons curved into wood, was the bird, looking at me.

"Shoo!” I said, waving at it. “Go on, get out of here.”

The bird cocked its head, staring at me. Membrane flicked back and forth across its open eyes. I tried to splash the bird, but I had no leverage. I just hung onto the side, my clothes weighted with water, while the pirate creature claimed my ship. I kicked out my legs and shook the boat as best I could.

The bird rode the mast. I stopped rocking, breathing hard, and held on to the side of the boat. The bird’s beak was now pecking under a wing, doing bird work.

The clothes had doubled in weight, and my teeth were chattering from the cold of the water. I couldn’t just stay there indefinitely, waiting until the bird flew off.

I kicked my legs out again, worked my way back to the stern, tried to swing a foot up onto the curve of the rudder. Missed by a long shot. I heaved a foot up and hooked it over the wood. I moved my foot onto the curve, and feeling loaded with lead, struggled myself up onto the edge of the boat. The bird perched silently, watching, fluff of a feather caught on its beak.

“Are you going to let me onto my own boat?” I asked. “Well, I’m coming aboard,” I said, and keeping my eyes on the bird, I pushed myself over the stern, scraping my stomach over wood, and rolled inside. The bird ruffled its feathers.

“I have to get out of these wet clothes,” I said. “You’re going to let me do that, aren’t you?”

The bird just sat there, watching, as I peeled off my clothes and spread them out over the boat to dry. I sat back in the stern. Clothes wet, and my stomach red and sore. The bird had done its damage, all right.

It was looking at me, the fluff still fluttering on its beak. “What are you doing here?” I asked it. “What the hell do you want, anyway?”

The bird’s beak parted. Its pointed black tongue rose inside.

Whatever that meant. I’d been soaked, but my sandwiches were dry, inside a plastic bag between the mast and the bow. I crawled over the seat in the middle of the boat, and stopping beside the centerboard housing, I stretched out a hand directly below the bird. The bird looked down at me as I pulled out the lunch bag and edged back to the stern.

It watched me unwrap a chicken sandwich, its beak opening wider.

“Oh,” I said, “is that what you want?” and I tore off a corner of the sandwich and tossed it up into the air.

There was a flurry of feathers, the bird arced from the mast, snapped the morsel from the air, and circled back over the shining water to the boat, fluttering down onto the bow. It dropped the sandwich at its feet, on the bow board, and pecked away at it.

“So you like chicken,” I said. When it finished, I tore off another piece of sandwich, lay it on the blade of the paddle, and held it out to the bird. The bird looked at it, snatched it with its beak, dropped the food at its feet, and ate.

The sail rustled with wind. I gripped the tiller in one hand, the mainsheet in the other, and we were off, heading towards shore. My car was a speck of white at the edge of distant trees.

Screeching, the bird erupted from the bow, flying straight towards me. As I rolled into the stern, a wingtip grazed the side of my head. Turning and watching the bird fly towards the watery horizon, I touched the place the wing touched me. It was wet. There was blood on my fingertips.

The shape of the bird began to fade when the bird banked, and its flight curved back towards me. I was ready to hunch down in the stern again if the creature flew at me a second time, but it climbed the air and soared above me.

With the tiller and the sheet in hand again, I once more caught the wind. High above, the bird was sailing with me. I bore to the starboard, and it followed. To the port, and it followed. Then, my eyes upon it, it tacked the air, and I followed. Another tack and another. Tack after tack, I flew with it upon the breeze.

When the bird leaned against the wind, its wings pointing towards water and sky, and curved back towards the horizon, I came about with it, pushing the tiller away from me, ducking the swinging boom, and shifting to the port side of the stern. Far out on the water, a lake freighter floated in haze.

Above me, the bird rode the wind, high sky sailer, and below, I was its shadow, mirroring its flight.

While we were angling with the wind, I noticed that my thighs were pink with sunburn, I put my damp shirt over my shoulders and spread my cool corduroys over my legs. I wrapped the mainsheet around a foot to get a hand free and eat lunch. As I began eating the sandwich, I looked up at the bird and thought of the rest of the sandwich being up there in the bird itself.

I gazed back at the receding shore. It was the farthest out I’d ever sailed, but I wanted to know why the bird had come to me, appearing to me out of nowhere, and with its strong, broad wings was beckoning me farther away from shore. I knew that if I turned around now, I would ever after wonder where the bird was going, where it wanted to take me. If I refused this invitation to the unknown, something inside me, I knew, would shrivel and die.

I knew I was choosing adventure.

The bird, flaming with sunlight, bent its flight, and I turned with it, the two of us together tacking back and forth towards the distant line of sky and water.

As the bird and I sailed deeper into the day, connected by a steel rod of air, the clouds spread and darkened, and waves of wind moved across the water towards the boat. When the sail strained with wind, I moved up onto the corner of the stern, gripped the mainsheet and the tiller. The force flowed through line and arm, through my body, and out through the other arm to the tiller, the sail and the rudder alive with a single energy.

Water bubbled around the rudder, the heaving bow slammed through waves, and the wooden mast strained towards breaking as the craft drove over dark water. I shouted out of sheer exultation, sounds without words. Above, the bird was soaring.

Raindrops splashed cool on my shoulders. Lightning split the sky with jagged light, right down to distant, smoky water, and thunder cracked. The wind shifted, gusting over the stern. The jibing boom shot up, and the sail wrapped around the mast. I climbed to the bow and tried to twist the boom back around and free the sail, but the boat tipped. I knelt down fast. Both the boom and the mast pointed upward to the bird, circling above me in the rain.

I pushed the sprocket of the boom against the mast and pulled down hard on the boom, forcing the sail to unfurl. The boat swung under me. Holding the boom with one hand, arm wrestling with the wind, I reached for the tiller. There was no tiller. There was no rudder. It must have popped out while the boat was rocking in the rough water. I looked at the water around me, desperately hoping to see the floating rudder, but it was just not there. The boat began to spin as I held the straining sail, pulling it towards me with all my strength, but the wind ripped the boom out of my fingers. All was red sail, flailing arms and swinging boom as the boat tipped. I heard a crack, a roaring in my head, and then I was falling, falling through water into water, tumbling as in dream, turning. The water swallowed me.

Glints of fire danced before my eyes, feathers of fire, the Bird. With wings outspread, it circled around me in the water, wrapping me in coils of light. It spiralled downward through dark water, and I stroked after it, raising arms like wings and spreading them down, up and back down, pulling myself down through water into water, up through water--into air.

A night sky spread out around me. When I looked for the Bird, I saw that the water around my head was shimmering with light. Turning, I saw fire blazing on the water. I covered my face with a hand and squinted in the brightness and in wonder. The flames rose from the sea, gathered into wings, into a shining shape many times its former size.

The Bird circled above me in the blue night, among stars shining so low above the sea that it seemed a person could reach out and touch them from a hilltop. Whether I was closer to the sky than I’d ever been before, or whether the sky was closer to me, I had no way of knowing. As I treaded water, I scanned the stars, searching for the Dippers, Cassiopeia, Orion, but saw no constellations I’d known before. Even the moon was different, twice its usual size and shining like a divine mind. If, on Earth, the face of the moon might be a self-portrait shaped out of mountains by a whimsical Creator, here what lay behind that face was visible. A brave new place.

The Bird spiraled down to me—so close that if I could stand on tiptoes on the water, I could stretch up and touch it with my fingertips—and began gliding away from me. It looked back, circled back around me, and again glided, again looked back. I swam after it. When I was directly under it, I began to swim on my back, my arms moving in rhythm with the Bird’s wings.

The water was warmer than it had been when the boat capsized, as though after falling into one of the frigid Great Lakes, I had emerged in the Gulf Stream. Also, it had been early afternoon when the wind came up, but now it was deep night. And the hawklike bird I had been following was now a blazing creature straight out of dream, from across the centuries and around the world.

I was as bare as a newborn babe, and whatever paper and plastic identity I had in the world was encased in the wallet in my corduroys, along with a Swiss army knife, change, a good-luck 50-drachma piece with an ancient Greek ship sailing on the back, and a ring of car, apartment and office keys. That pair of pants bearing all those relics was now rolling like smooth whitened bones in the depths of the deep deep sea. Dead to the world, I was now swimming under a firebird whose flaming wings reflected on the water around me, making me, myself, a flaming mythical beast with a human head.

Time slowed as the spring of the body’s strength wound down. I looked for rest from backstroke muscles and freshness in others by swimming on my side, then my stomach, and on my back again, pulling my leaden self through the water. I thought of the depths beneath me.

Treading water, I looked around at the starry sky, at the dark horizon of water. A living speck at the center of all the expanse spreading out and away from me, I felt very tired, and very cold, and very naked, and very alone, in the center of a very wide sea. I looked up at the flaming Bird, circling, waiting for me, and stretching out again, I resumed swimming, pulling handfuls of water down my length.

Towards morning, while resting again by treading water, I saw a mound of shadow in the far distance. Land!

So, the Bird had a destination.

As I dragged myself on, the water took on the sheen of old silver, then shone golden as the sun began to emerge from the water straight past my legs. I stuck a foot up out of the water, toes in the sun.

The sunlight did not last. While I stroked on, vapor of low cloud paled the orange ball and slowly spread over the sea.

The Bird’s wings glowing above me through the mist, I pulled myself on.

And on, ever more slowly, until the limbs barely moved at all. I floated on my back, tried to stroke each time water rose over my face. I must have reached toward the Bird as I sank, because the flames lowered above me. Talons gripped my wrist, and I felt myself gliding through liquid air.

At long last, without a stitch and without a name, I find myself on the misty shore of an unknown place of possibilities. Robed in flame, the Bird sits there upon a throne of rock. Its eyes, as deep as the sea, the sky, and all time, welcome me. And you.

Copyright © 2022 Joseph Nigg